State News

Polar vortex, Lake Mendota ice demand discussion on climate change

Polarizing temperatures cause arctic weather during a winter that yielded one of the latest freezes of Lake Mendota. 

Polarizing temperatures cause arctic weather during a winter that yielded one of the latest freezes of Lake Mendota. 

Image By: Max Homstad

Universities across Wisconsin canceled classes Wednesday due to extreme weather conditions, giving students the day off, but also bringing attention to a pertinent issue affecting the state —  climate change.

Windchill temperatures accompanying a “polar vortex” reached 50 degrees below zero, prompting Gov. Tony Evers to sign an executive order that declared a state of emergency and closed non-essential state government offices.

The extreme circumstances caused by the polar vortex have claimed multiple lives across the country, including a man in Milwaukee. 

Although the phenomenon is not new, many recent studies, including work by UW-Madison professors, suggest a connection between the increased frequency of polar vertices and climate change.  

John Magnuson, professor emeritus and director emeritus at the UW-Madison Center for Limnology, contributed to a new study with international scientists that links climate change with decreasing freshwater ice. The research found that extensive loss of lake ice will continue to occur within the next generation.

Magnuson highlighted the relevance of the study’s findings to Madison, drawing a link between Lake Mendota’s ice loss and the risk of losing long-held traditions and activities. 

"People who are interested in winter recreation and ice carnivals and things of that nature will begin to find that they have to pay more attention to what the lake is doing," Magnuson said, implying the uncertainty of the lake’s future.

In 2019, Lake Mendota did not freeze until Jan. 10, marking one of its latest freezes in nearly 160 years. 

Research conducted by fellow UW-Madison faculty member Adam Hinterthuer — the outreach and communications specialist for the Center for Limnology — found that later ice-freezes are accompanied by warmer spring seasons. This causes Lake Mendota to thaw earlier, shortening the time the lake is ice-capped, and in recent years tying records for earliest ice-off. 

Implications of this can lead to more algal blooms that harm local fish and wildlife.  

According to Mary Jean Huston, state director of Wisconsin’s branch of The Nature Conservancy — a globally active group that works in land conservation and energy solutions — climate change is also affecting Wisconsin wildlife outside of the water.

Huston described how this phenomena is impacting the gray jay, a bird native to northern Wisconsin, whose population is decreasing due to warmer spring temperatures spoiling their stored food from winter.  

“This is an example of climate change and how it’s impacting the wildlife we know,” Huston said.

She also listed increasing storm patterns as an example of the effects of climate change, referencing the storms Madison experienced last August that caused dramatic flooding.

Huston talked about the importance of making climate change a non-partisan issue, which she believes often means meeting people where they are.

“We’re trying to improve the dialogue … people might not talk about it in terms of climate,” stated Huston. “We’re working on energy and climate change solutions, rather than arguing about things.”

The organization assists farmers in across the state with conservation operations that capture and reduce carbon in the atmosphere by planting cover crops and restoring grasslands. 

She suggested drawing connections between climate change and common Wisconsin pastimes that will be affected — like ice fishing, birdwatching, hunting and snowshoeing — to show people how the impacts are local.   

Nevertheless, climate change and global warming remain contentious political issues.

President Trump recently tweeted about global warming, begging it to “please come back fast” as Midwestern states experience record-breaking cold. The tweet was quickly debunked by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and drew a response from U.S. Sen. Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, who called the president a “moron.”

Regardless, work to improve the environment seems to be a priority for the state’s current legislators.

Gov. Tony Evers declared 2019 “The Year of Clean Drinking Water,” Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes called for state investments in renewable energy and endorsed a “Green New Deal” and Assembly Republicans delivered a letter to Gov. Evers expressing their intention of working with him to increase access to clean drinking water. 

Huston stressed the importance of using young people and students voices to lead the discussion about climate change, iterating the value of notifying local elected leaders to address these issues. 

For now, students can expect classes to resume and a significant rise in temperature this weekend – highlighting the extreme polarity of this winter.

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