‘If you want a scary story:’ Agriculture, human health and ecosystems at risk as Illinois’ climate is quickly changing, report shows

Morgan Greene, Chicago Tribune – ·9 min read

Illinois’ climate is swiftly changing,In an extensive new report released Tuesday, the Nature Conservancy details how Illinois’ climate has transformed and looks forward to what more change might mean for the state’s agriculture, human health and already-stressed ecosystems.

“There’s a big message there that we need to be doing everything we can to prevent future climate change by mitigating our use of fossil fuels, particularly,” said Donald Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois, and one of the lead authors of the assessment. “For those things we can’t prevent, because there’s still going to be some change, we have to adapt to be resilient.”

Even after curbing carbon emissions to meet certain bench marks, the changes in Illinois by 2100 could be stark: average annual temperatures warming 4 to 9 degrees, a month of 95-degree or higher temperatures, 3 more inches of spring rain, more flooding, and compounding health risks from heat, waterborne pathogens and diseases carried by mosquitoes and ticks. Not to mention the mental strain of living through it all.

What’s happening in Illinois is part of the larger story of human activity driving a changing global climate. Last year tied for the warmest on record, according to NASA scientists. Since preindustrial times, concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide have shot up, and the global average temperature has increased. The Paris Agreement aims to limit warming, preferably to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, a limit fast approaching.

Carbon emissions dropped during the pandemic, but carbon dioxide levels continued to climb.

“The climate of Illinois, like the rest of the country and the rest of the world, is changing and is changing rapidly,” Wuebbles said. “And that has serious repercussions on the people of Illinois.”

“If you want a scary story, that’s the story,” Wuebbles added. “And we need to be taking it seriously. We need to be doing something about it.”

Vulnerable communities

The health effects of climate change will depend on where you live; communities already disproportionately facing inequities, including low-income communities and communities of color, are likely to be harder hit, according to the report released Tuesday by more than 40 scientists and experts.

“The thing about climate change is that it really doesn’t leave anything untouched,” said Karen Petersen, climate change project manager at the Nature Conservancy. “It’s not just about temperature, or feeling hotter on a summer day, or having a rainier day. It’s about how those climate impacts, which we perceive as our daily weather, are going to impact how a farmer farms, or how someone deals with heat stress.”

In Illinois, increasing overall precipitation and heavier events are expected to intensify flooding. . Greater flooding risk may bring greater emotional stress, along with mold and waterborne disease. Additionally, dozens of Illinois health care facilities are located in flood plains, which may hinder access to care during floods.

According to a study referenced in the assessment that looked at flooding claims by county over a seven-year period, nearly all private insurance claims were in urban areas.

In Chicago, flooding has forced sludge into basements and unleashed swarms of sewer flies in nightmare scenarios. The burden is disproportionate, said Marcella Bondie Keenan, climate program director at the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

“You can see it on the ground in terms of neighborhoods that are being hit over and over again, places like Chatham for example,” Keenan said. “But also places like the Far Southeast Side.”

On the Southeast Side, it’s not just the basement backups, Keenan said, but also what’s being picked up along the way from industrial areas. And pollution concerns also connect to climate resiliency, Keenan said.

“Every time we make a decision around what to permit and how to develop, you’re either moving toward a climate safe future, or you’re moving further away from it,” Keenan said.

Climate change is likely to increase the total days with a dangerous heat index in Illinois and warmer weather can mean an increased risk of heat stroke. Cities including Chicago, blanketed in concrete and asphalt, also exhibit the “urban heat island effect” — warming more and staying warmer at night. If emissions rise, heat waves like the 1995 Chicago disaster that led to more than 700 deaths are expected to become more common.

Heat may also welcome some species north, including the yellow fever mosquito, which transmits dengue, and allow pests to bite for longer periods. Warmer winters may assist tick survival and mosquito population growth, leading to earlier and more circulation of West Nile virus.

Respiratory allergies and asthma attacks could be more frequently spurred by mold, pollution and pollen — which is likely to see an extended season. In Illinois, the assessment notes asthma is already high among African Americans, women and low-income communities.

“The normal that we understand now is going and is already shifting,” Petersen said. “It’s already happening.

‘A very resilient breed’

Jeff Kirwan, who serves on the board of directors for the Illinois Farm Bureau, farms corn and soybeans south of the Quad Cities in Mercer County.

Over the years, Kirwan said variability seems to have increased a bit, but it’s hard to assess. “We do seem to get more severe weather, more dynamic rainfalls, dryer spells,” Kirwan said. “The future, when you look into that crystal ball, it’s a whole bunch of uncertainty. … We don’t know. And so you just kind of adapt. And I think that’s what we’re good at, adapting to changes.”

The climate that Illinois farmers depend upon is changing, the assessment says, and farmers will be up against higher temperatures, increased soil evaporation, flash droughts — and stressed crops.

Illinois is among the top producers of soybeans and corn, which in part contribute to a more than $19 billion a year industry, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture. The industry employs close to a million people, but farm operators have decreased to about 75,000 from 164,000 in 1959, while average farm sizes have more than doubled with technology developments, according to the Department of Agriculture.

It’s tough to predict how Illinois crops will react to a warming climate with much uncertainty ahead, the assessment notes, but even with a longer growing season, there are some challenges farmers might face.

Increased carbon dioxide levels may benefit soybean crops in the short term, but as drought and heat intensify, elevated levels may make things worse. Corn yields are likely to be reduced by 2050 and may be particularly vulnerable to warming nighttime temperatures. Some planting zones may shift north.

With increasing precipitation, a wet spring could delay planting. In 2019, among the wettest years on record , about 1.2 million acres of corn and soybeans went unplanted, the assessment notes. Wetter weather can also cause erosion, which can make soil less resilient to extreme weather.

Nuisances — weeds, pests and disease — may also become greater problems, requiring more applications of control measures, including pesticides.

These competing forces mean adapting will be necessary, but the assessment says farmers may be able to make up for some losses through technology advances and management tweaks.

Kirwan’s farm uses cover crops — which can assist in soil erosion — and other conservation measures. Adopting those practices was part of thinking about sustainability, water quality and nutrient management, Kirwan said.

“But also because it helps us preserve our asset and our legacy,” Kirwan said. “It’s not for everybody, and you’ll get differing opinions, but I think overall we try and do the things that are best for our operations and for our families.”

There have been discussions about climate in Illinois for years in the agricultural world, Kirwan said, and he’s still optimistic, especially as technology has developed.

“Farming, we are always dealing with challenges — weather challenges, insect challenges, governmental challenges,” Kirwan said. “Nothing’s ever going to stay the same, we know that.”

Weather disasters, and the existential threats climate change poses, can affect mental health, and the assessment notes farmers may be at an especially high risk as they face increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather.

To watch weather diminish a crop can take a mental toll, Kirwan said. “We don’t like to have to watch something that we put our hard-earned work into wither away.”

Still, Kirwan said, “Farmers are a very resilient breed — if we’ve made it this far.”

‘Things can warm up very quickly’

In Illinois, the average daily temperature has increased throughout most of the state in the last century by 1 to 2 degrees.

Nighttime minimum temperatures in some parts of the state have increased at three times the rate of daytime temperatures, leading to hot summer nights without relief, and also fewer freezing evenings in winter — the season that has seen the most warming. In some parts of the state, minimum winter temperatures have warmed by more than 3 degrees.

Daytime high temperatures have been kept at bay in part by increased precipitation, which increases soil moisture. Average annual precipitation has increased by 5% to as much as 20% in pockets of the state, and there are 40% more days with 2 inches of rain or more, while in recent decades extreme droughts have become more rare.

A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, and heavier rains are likely to continue, especially in the north. But that balance may shift in coming decades, as temperatures increase and summer precipitation decreases.

“Once you dry out those soils, things can warm up very quickly,” said Jim Angel, a lead author of the report and a former state climatologist for more than three decades.

An exceptionally hot 1936 summer, with temperatures 4.5 degrees above a 30-year average, could become the norm.

And more extreme weather may become more likely — more exceptionally warm days, more intense rains and longer dry spells.

The assessment’s lower scenario model predicting the effects of climate change depends on a rapid retreat from fossil fuels and lower emissions overall, while in a higher scenario model, emissions continue to steeply rise.

Wuebbles, a former White House expert on climate science, said he thinks people can adapt to the lower end. “It’s the high scenario, or anything approaching the high scenario, that by the end of this century I think would be disastrous for humanity.”

The higher estimates for the state by the end of the century are difficult to imagine. In northern Illinois, for example, at the extreme end, the annual average temperature could increase from 49 degrees to as much as 63 degrees — a 14-degree jump.

“It’s not in the abstract,” Angel said. “We’re actually observing these changes taking place now and the projections are that not only are they going to continue, but in many cases become much more problematic moving on into the future.”

At a Tuesday morning news conference, Wuebbles said, “My big worry is getting to 2050 and having our grandchildren saying, what were they thinking back in 2020?”

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