What Does Climate Change Mean for Your City? Check Out this Useful Tool for Visualizing Your “New Normal”

Last month, research professors Matt Fitzpatrick and Rob Dunn took a look at 540 urban areas and created a tool to help us understand exactly what high- and medium-emissions futures mean for us. As they point out in their paper, “A major challenge in articulating human dimensions of climate change lies in translating global climate forecasts into impact assessments that are intuitive to the public.” This interactive map is one answer to this problem.

In short, they created a map where users can type in their cities and then pick a few different scenarios to get a concrete idea of what the climate will be like in 2080. Choose from a current, high-emissions scenario (RCP8.5, or +4.9ºC) or a reduced-emissions future (RCP4.5, or +2.4ºC). Users can also look at an “average” forecast or a spider-web of twenty-seven possible “sister cities,” as well as toggling between flight lines or a Doppler-like display of likely climate similarity.

We ran through the options for Madison, Wisconsin.

Madison’s high-emissions sister city is Lansing, Kansas.

Madison’s most likely sister city for the high-emissions scenario is Lansing, Kansas. I’ve had the pleasure of spending time near Lansing and it is hot relative to Madison, as can be read from the nearly 12ºF increase in winter temperatures. Although this will increase the growing season in Wisconsin, it will also let pests survive our now-milder winters.

Madison’s low-emissions sister city is Rantoul, Illinois.

Rantoul, Illinois, is slightly warmer and wetter than Madison currently and may be a good analog of our warmer climate if we are able to curb our emissions. Again, we can expect a slightly longer growing season and milder winters, but the increased moisture may cause other unexpected shifts and difficulties for our region.

A variety of potential outcomes.

The study used twenty-seven different climate models, and while they all show slightly different future climates for Madison, the trend is clear: warmer, drier. It is a safe bet that our part of Wisconsin will feel a lot more like Missouri or Kansas by 2080 in the high-emission scenario (and Illinois in the low-emissions one).

A display of the likelihood of future climate scenarios.

Another way to think of this is by showing what is likely through an intensity plot. The closer to red an area is on the map, the more strongly it is to represent our future climate.

The biggest benefit of this map is that it gives us something to think about in concrete terms. I’ve lived in St. Louis, for example, and know what the summers and winters are like there. I was glad to move to Wisconsin, where so much of the spring, summer, and fall are more pleasant than they were in St. Louis, but the real changes will be to the ecosystem around us. Usually these changes take place over geologic time scales (i.e., thousands or hundreds of thousands of years) and flora and fauna have time to adapt and migrate, but that may not be the case here, especially for firmly rooted plants. This century will be a pivotal one for us and the rest of the world.

The map can be accessed by clicking here.

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