Adapting to climate change in Michigan

Warmer years and rainfall changes expected

By: Kevin Bunch | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published January 13, 2016

 Researchers have seen a 37 percent increase in the number of severe storms during the past 100 years.

Researchers have seen a 37 percent increase in the number of severe storms during the past 100 years.

Shutterstock photo

Despite a landmark climate agreement signed by representatives of 195 countries on Dec. 12 to try to limit the global warming temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius, scientists still expect this century to get warmer over the coming decades due to the greenhouse gas emissions already in the atmosphere.

This warming trend is expected to impact people living in every corner of the globe, including Michigan. According to University of Michigan Climate Center Director Elizabeth Gibbons, the biggest changes expected in the Great Lakes region are related to precipitation.

“We’re seeing precipitation as a whole greatly increasing, as we see precipitation over the last 100 years increasing 11 percent on average,” Gibbons said. “It’s really coming in the spring and the winter and fall months, so we tend to see a shift of getting what we say is more water when you don’t need it and less when you do.”

Additionally, Gibbons said climate researchers have seen a 37 percent increase in the number of severe storms during the past 100 years, which can lead to localized flooding and a greater strain on both natural and urban systems.

In terms of temperatures, she said they have risen 2 degrees on average in the past 100 years — faster than the national or global averages — with the Great Lakes warming faster than the air.

“We’ve seen over a period of 1971 to 2010 that Lake Superior temperatures increased 4.5 degrees,” Gibbons said. “With that kind of warming, you see incredible impacts on the dynamics of the lake itself, the fish that can thrive in the lake, and it’s changing our local climate patterns, because the lakes are the drivers of what we experience locally.”

While Michigan is subject to the same global weather drivers as anywhere else, the size and location of the Great Lakes make them a big driver for local weather patterns too, she said. When the lakes are not freezing as often or as heavily in the winter, that has an impact on precipitation — snowfall can instead be replaced by rain, and especially ice storms, Gibbons said.

Not only can these ice storms make things difficult for regions that base their winter economies on snow activities, but cities could be facing more power outages. Gibbons said that Toronto is trying to adapt to this by varying its electrical grid to make it harder for power lines to get knocked out.

Power outages lead to people running generators, Gibbons said. A report from the Michigan Department of Community Health states that carbon monoxide poisoning can happen more frequently when people run those generators during outages, as burning fossil fuels creates the gas.

Outside of cold winters and more ice, severe storms can knock out the power any time of the year, she said.

Gibbons suggested reducing the power grid to make it more localized and harder to disrupt large chunks at once. She also advocated for using more kinds of power generation methods to reduce carbon emissions in order to prevent these problems from getting worse.

Andrew Hoffman, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, told C & G Newspapers in December that it would be difficult to replace all of the energy created by coal power plants in Michigan with only renewable energy sources like solar and wind. He said nuclear power likely would be needed to make up that gap.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency’s website, half of Michigan’s power in 2014 came from coal — 4,455 gigawatt hours — with another 30 percent from nuclear power — about 2,000 gigawatt hours.

On the infrastructure side, Gibbons said local communities should look south to see how communities in other states that see more ice storms prepare their roads, as it is likely that ice would become a greater issue on the roads over time.

“It’s a different process than dealing with snow,” she said. “There are preventative measures, like putting down materials to keep the ice from sealing, and how to get ice off that road, which is different from snow removal.”

To contend with flooding, Gibbons said communities should work on separating combined wastewater and storm sewers; this can help keep the water lines from backing up and flooding people’s homes. This can also keep wastewater runoff out of the Great Lakes — a major health concern given that Lake Erie has been contending with toxic algal blooms that can use human waste to grow.

“Down in Toledo, they’ve been working to prioritize areas and identify where is flooding most severe, and where do they have unimproved roads — areas without curb cuts or sidewalks,” Gibbons said. “When there are severe storms, it’s more likely to come up to houses in those areas.”

Water is supposed to flow down well-designed roads during floods, she added, though there still need to be passable evacuation routes for people to get out of the area if necessary.

Another thing that cities like Ann Arbor have been doing to reduce flood risks is offering property owners a break on their stormwater utility fees if they take steps to reduce storm runoff on their land. Gibbons said this provides an incentive for people to add rain gardens or convert parking pads or paved surfaces to grass, gravel or permeable concrete. This allows more water to seep into the ground and keeps it out of the sewer system. Larger cities that meet thresholds for population and population density are subject to stormwater utility fees.

In other ways, Michigan may benefit from a warming climate over the next few decades — Gibbons said models are basically in agreement about which way the climate will go until 2050 — due to an extended growing season for farms and orchards, and milder winters. Michigan likely will not face water shortages like other regions due to the Great Lakes being here.

Hoffman said that people should not treat freshwater like a given anymore, including the Great Lakes. Even with the amount of water there, he said people in other regions may find themselves interested in getting access in the future.

“Certainly we are safer than most, given the amount of water we have, but … if you remember a few years ago, Bill Richardson, from New Mexico, said in a presidential debate about running a pipeline from the Great Lakes (out west),” Hoffman said. “So, let’s see what happens when there’s more people who want to access a resource that we consider ours.”

Gibbons said states should work to keep the amount of pollution, runoff and flooding going into the lakes at a minimum now to make sure the water remains drinkable and usable going forward.