Digging Deeper: Climate Matters

What is climate change, and is it happening now? Indiana’s leading experts in climatology sort through fact and fiction on global warming and climate change.
Updated: Aug. 19, 2021 at 8:13 PM EDT
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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA) - Climate change can lead to hotter days, extreme weather and harmful emissions. It can even affect our health and well-being.

The topic has become one not only of scientific study, but political debate. In the former realm, there is no longer any question: Civilization has changed the course of earth’s climate. But what can be done, and can it be done in ways that all -- or at least most -- of us can accept?

In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published an updated report that concludes, “it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.”

With misinformation on climate change widely spread, ABC21 is Digging Deeper to find the truth about climate change from Hoosiers who have studied the topic, and are watching first-hand as the changes unfold.

Climate Matters

For millennia, Earth has regulated its own temperature through a reliable system of heat absorption during the day, and thermal radiation at night.

However, sunspot activity, variations in the Earth’s orbit , CO2 emissions and other factors like volcanic eruptions periodically cause the Earth to warm or cool beyond average levels.

It’s fair to say climate change has been a part of Earth’s story as long as Earth has been around - but, we live in an unprecedented time in history.

Over the past couple hundred years, typical variations in Earth’s overall temperature have become less variable and more one-sided, at an alarming rate.

Graphs illustrate the global surface temperatures, comparing the change from pre-industrial levels.

Global Temperature Graph
Global Temperature Graph(WPTA)

Natural drivers of climate change have resulted in a few notable dips in temperature, but increased CO2 emissions, deforestation, and manufacturing have resulted in a significant spike in average global temperatures since about 1960.

Climate researcher and associate professor Dr. Petra Zimmermann at Ball State University explains, “we expect to have differences in weather day to day. That in that short time scale is weather. Climate is the overall picture -- the long-term picture.”

Zimmermann also laid out how the term “climate” has evolved over the years.

“It’s really looking at the signal versus the noise,” she said. “If you look at a graph, (and it) goes up and down, ‘oh, there are a lot of changes here!’ But if you put a line on that graph and say, ‘the line is going up, or the line is going down’ that’s the signal. Weather is the noise; climate is the signal.”

Earlier this year, Northeast Indiana was slammed by a snowstorm that produced more than eight inches of snow -- an event that typically happens once every five or six years.

But two weeks later, another snowstorm blasted through the region, bringing a record-breaking 11.3 inches to Fort Wayne.

The second storm was, in itself, once-in-a-decade for the city, but to have two 8+ inch events in two weeks? That’s close to once-in-a-lifetime.

Many believe that cold events like those invalidate the idea that the Earth is warming.

But that’s where using weather and climate interchangeably can be misleading.

Weather describes the short term trends, and climate describes long term trends -- usually happening over decades.

Fort Wayne Winter Storm
Fort Wayne Winter Storm(WPTA)
NE Indiana Flooding
NE Indiana Flooding(WPTA)

For Fort Wayne, specifically, average winter temperatures are warming, but average snowfall is increasing. That’s been the case since 1970.

Heavier rainfall events have also been on the rise, so more precipitation in the colder months could also mean larger and more frequent snowstorms in the future.

And the impact goes far beyond 21Country. The entire world is feeling effects.

Hurricanes, wildfires, drought, floods, severe weather and even snowstorms continue to increase.

Climate and Farming

Climate change also impacts Indiana’s $31 billion dollar agriculture industry.

Research warns that farmers will have to adapt by changing their methods. Corn and soybeans are the two biggest cash crops here.

Adams County farmer Mike Werling already sees the effect of climate change on his own fields.

“Growing up, we would get half-inch or inch rains. Now we’re getting harder rains that last longer,” he told us.

“A couple of weeks ago, when Monroeville had the seven inches of rain, I got four of it,” he continued. “But I had two more inches before and after it… I had almost two inches the week before, and another inch the week after. We always got hard rains, but it’s becoming more common.”

Scientists at Purdue University say farmers will see more heavy rain events, with saturated soil in the spring.

Conditions not very good for planting.

And during the growing season, they’ll see less rain -- and temperatures that will stress out crops, which will reduce yields and erode the soil.

“Some of the research out of Purdue, for instance, suggests that these agricultural droughts could contribute to like a 16-20 percent decline in crop yields by 2050,” Matt Houser, of the IU Environmental Resilience Institute, told us.

“And overall, putting all of the impacts of climate change together, some people are estimating up to a 70 percent decline in corn yields by 2070,” he said.

Houser says farmers have no choice but to adapt.

Mike Werling's Farm
Mike Werling's Farm(WPTA)
Fort Wayne Precipitation
Fort Wayne Precipitation(WPTA)
Agricultural Flooding
Agricultural Flooding(WPTA)

One way Mike Werling is already doing that is by controlling the water in the tile under his fields, either by speeding up drainage or slowing it down.

It’s a technique that keeps nutrients from washing away.

He also conserves soil health by using the no-till method, and by planting cover crops.

Houser’s colleague, Lingxi Chenyang, suggests planting trees throughout entire farming fields.

“Trees sequester a lot of carbon,” she explained. “In its trunk, and its roots, and its branches -- a lot more than corn and soy and other plants. One study that we cited in our paper showed that planting trees on just 10 percent of all farmland in the U.S. can offset about 34 percent of fossil fuel emissions.”

By planting trees around their farms, which is called a windbreak, farmers can help control soil erosion.

Trees alongside the river help prevent water pollution.

Alley cropping, which is planting crops in between entire rows of trees, can not only help the soil, but also generate more profit for farmers, if those trees yield other product like walnuts as well.

Right now, Indiana’s farmers are facing more rain in the spring, droughts during the growing season and higher temperatures that will potentially lead to a 20 percent decrease in corn yields, an 11 percent decline in soybeans, and a 50 percent decline in soil nutrition.

Werling says he knows families already beginning to adapt.

“The sons or daughters of the present farmers are the ones that are saying, ‘dad, we should try cover crops,’” he said. “‘We should no-till -- we should do a little less tilling.’ I hear that all the time now. So, that’s a very good sign.”

Climate and your Health

At IUPUI, in Indianapolis, Prof. Gabe Filipelli warns of more extreme weather events -- some we’re already seeing here.

“South Bend, Indiana, famously had two flooding events that were statistically impossible to happen within three years of each other,” he shared. “A statistician would be pulling out their hair! But yet, they did.”

You may remember: One of those floods in South Bend, in 2016, affected more than 1,100 homes.

Waters ravaged the city once more less than two years later.

And the community is still dealing with the aftermath.

In early August, St. Joseph County bought twelve homes damaged by those floods.

Dr. Gabriel Filippelli's Lab
Dr. Gabriel Filippelli's Lab(WPTA)
South Bend Flooding
South Bend Flooding(WPTA)

“We are truly seeing these things more often,” Filipelli told us.

British Columbia was slammed with sweltering heat this summer.

Hundreds of people died, and that kind of direct and immediate impact is concern for the professor.

Filipelli says three categories of people are vulnerable to such high temperatures and worsening air quality: The elderly, those with preexisting conditions and children.

Homestead High School girls assistant soccer coach Ally Link has struggled with asthma most her life, and its only getting worse.

“It can be really scary, because sometimes I’ll just be laying down, and I’ll feel that,” she described. “And I’m like, ‘I’m not even doing anything, but I can’t breathe!’”

Link once played soccer for Homestead, and she managed her asthma then.

But even now as she’s on the sidelines coaching, it continues to get worse.

“On a daily basis, I was struggling. Now (it’s) to the point where if I laugh too hard, I have an asthma attack,” Link shared.

These days, she manages her condition with a regular inhaler, rescue inhaler and -- if it’s really bad -- a nebulizer.

But she remains concerned about the future -- especially for her mother, whose asthma is even worse.

“I do kind of have a fear (that) it probably won’t get better for me, it’ll just develop,” she told us, “I feel like I’ve taken the right steps to make sure it doesn’t get worse right now. So, in the future if that means I don’t go outside when the air quality is horrible, then maybe I have to do that.”

In Indianapolis, Prof. Filippelli is developing a program to help protect those most vulnerable when the air quality is particularly bad.

But beyond that, Filippelli says it will take systemic change.

“The more we talk about it, the more we’ll normalize the reality of climate change and the fact that we actually need to start acting pretty quickly, and pretty extremely to have a less-bad future,” he said. “There’s no deadline to deal with climate change. It’s just, the more we emit carbon, the worse it will be in the future.”

Renewable Energy

A climate-friendly future will only be possible with renewable energy sources.

Indiana is already implementing several types, using natural resources.

St. Joseph Solar Farm
St. Joseph Solar Farm(WPTA)

Just east of South Bend is the new St. Joseph Solar Farm, which provides energy to parts of Michiana, as well as the University of Notre Dame.

Schnee Garrett, a spokeswoman for Indiana Michigan Power, says the carbon offset the solar farm provides is significant.

“The St. Joseph Solar Farm will eliminate 13,000 tons of carbon dioxide produced a year,” she explained. “That’s equivalent to taking 2,600 cars off the road, or not driving more than 30 million miles a year.”

It also produces 20 megawatts of electricity annually, powering more than 2,700 homes.

This particular solar farm also has panels that follow the sun, so even on cloudy days, it maximizes its potential to gather energy.

Paul Kempf, of the University of Notre Dame, says the solar farm is just one piece in the institutions efforts for a climate-friendly future.

“For us, it’s a lot like investing in stocks. You can pick one idea and go with it,” Kempf told us. “For us it’s a diversified portfolio with the different kind of renewables, as mentioned.”

Wind is another renewable resource that can be harnessed to create energy.

Bitter Ridge Wind Farm in Jay County has 52 turbines that produce power for about 20,000 homes.

They only need about six miles per hour of wind, to get the blades spinning.

Cook Nuclear Plant
Cook Nuclear Plant(WPTA)
Cook Nuclear Plant
Cook Nuclear Plant(WPTA)

In Bridgeport, Mich., I&M’s D.C. Cook Nuclear Plant produces enough power for over one million homes.

“If you just take one fuel pellet, that’s equivalent to one ton of coal,” plant manager Kelly Ferneu said.

“If you only got nuclear power for your entire life, providing power for you and everything you do, the amount of waste would fit into a soda can,” she continued. “It’s not waste free, but our waste is very small compared to the other kinds of energy sources, and it’s very safely stored here on site.”

Despite it’s reputation, Ferneu insists nuclear plants are safe.

“I’ve always lived close to where I’ve worked, and I’ve worked in nuclear power my entire life,” she told us. “If you think about how the plants are designed here in the United States, there are layers and layers of redundancy.”

The plant emits steam, non-radioactive condensation from the secondary side.

Ferneu says nuclear energy is also the most reliable, and “when the sun doesn’t shine, when the wind doesn’t blow, when coal piles freeze up or there’s congestion from other sources… we’re there.”

Energy expert Rebecca Ciez teaches at Purdue University and sees the value of nuclear energy, while also acknowledging the challenges of increasing energy dependency on renewable energy.

“Wind and solar will get us a little ways towards there, but if we want that reliable electricity to live our lives, we need nuclear power,” she said. “Renewable energy is challenging because it’s dependent on the weather.”

“You’re depending on the sun to shine, or the wind to be blowing for your electricity generation,” she elaborated, “and so typically those things are variable, but they’re variable in different ways. So, you want to build an electricity system that incorporates multiple different resources to hedge against those uncertainties.”

Ciez says we still have a long way to go, before becoming dependent on 100 percent renewable energy.

“It becomes more and more challenging to build a system that’s on renewables alone,” she told us. That’s where things like energy storage, nuclear energy or other low carbon sources… whether that’s natural gas, or some other source, becomes really important.”

“What I sort of think about is how much carbon are you continuing to pump into the air,” Ciez continued. “The efficiency on a solar panel may not be all that high per unit area, but it’s extremely cheap and it’s a low carbon resource. If we don’t do that we’re going to lose valuable ecosystems either way.

“There’s an inherent risk to not changing the way we use our energy system.”

Our Changing Climate

The science is clear, and it will have big impacts on life over the next few decades.

In Fort Wayne, Science Central’s popular “Science on a Sphere” exhibit taps into data that visually shows Earth’s changing climate.

From warming ocean temperatures to arctic sea ice loss, the picture illustrates warming at an ever-increasing rate.

Science Central Science on a Sphere
Science Central Science on a Sphere(WPTA)

In the coming years, ice caps will continue to melt, sea levels will continue to rise and storms will continue to strengthen.

Since 1895, Indiana’s average temperature has risen 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, with the most dramatic change between the 1960s and 2016.

In the next 30 years, temperatures are expected to warm even more.

With endless droughts, deadly wildfires and hurricanes ravaging coast lines to our east, humans will see more extreme weather obstacles also.

But how can we make a difference? How can we reverse the damage already done, and change the course of our changing climate?

Jeff Dukes, director of the Purdue Climate Change Research Center, compiles impacts assessments responsible for mapping out our future.

“Climate change is making these events more likely and worse when they happen, and it’s hard to say ‘oh this event definitely happened because of climate change,’” Duke explained. “But what you can say is ‘that event was much more likely to happen because of climate change.’”

“Every once in a while we’ll still get a cold record broken, and we’ll still have cold days, and we’ll still get polar vortexes coming down where we get arctic air,” he added. “But the reality is that arctic air is a lot warmer than it used to be. It’s just a lot colder than what we’re used to here.”

Is there a reason for hope going forward?

Dukes is cautiously optimistic.

Purdue University
Purdue University(WPTA)
Dr. Jeff Dukes
Dr. Jeff Dukes(WPTA)

“There’s a range of possible futures,” he said. “It’s not like we’re definitely going down the worst case scenario track. Where we end up depends on what we do to avoid this. What’s really important about that is thinking about how we address this as a society.”

“(It’s) not just what we do in our own lives, but what we do as a society in a big way. In my opinion, that’s the most important thing,” Dukes said. “Because if we don’t think about it really broadly, we’re going to have trouble addressing it at the large scale it needs to be addressed at.”

That’s the key going forward: Broad, systemic change to the way we live our lives, if we want to avoid the worst possible climate outcomes.

If we, as humans, want to protect the food we eat and grow, and prevent unnecessary health impacts, we must lower our carbon emissions, and take other actions to slow down and even stop the pace our climate is warming.

What we can do today, can create a better future tomorrow.

Because it affects our daily lives, our climate matters.

This special report is sponsored by the Maumee River Basin Commission. To learn more, visit the MRBC website.

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