Scientist: Global warming would bring drought, floods to Chicago

Retreating glaciers, rising sea levels that threaten coastal cities, and the extinction of species have become part of the familiar litany of horrors associated with climate change.

Yesterday, environmental advocates, educators and scientists  looked at the impacts of the increase in global greenhouse gas emissions on the local level.

“The character of the Midwest as we know it is at risk,” says Don Wuebbles, a professor in the atmospheric sciences department at UIC.

The discussions  took place at the Chicago Wilderness Congress 2008 at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum, which drew over 600 people, including dozens of members of Chicago-area environmental groups.

Wuebbles, whose study of global warming at the local level provided the basis for the Chicago Climate Action Plan, outlined several ways that Chicago will experience climate change.

By the end of the century the city will likely see increased precipitation in winter and spring , as well as drought punctuated by severe rainfalls in the summer. This cycle could stress the city’s infrastructure and increase the incidence of flooding.

A severe heat wave, like the one in 1995 that killed roughly 700 Chicagoans, could become an annual event. Air quality will worsen as hydrocarbons combine with other pollutants to create ozone, says Wuebbles.

Extended summers will mean a longer growing season for Midwest agriculture, but also poorer soils and an increase in invasive species, such as the Emerald Ash Borer.

Wuebbles says Illinois will look more like eastern Texas in terms of temperature and precipitation by the end of the century. Under a worst-case scenario, Chicago would resemble Mobile, Alabama., Wuebbles says.

While many plants will adapt to climate change, Pati Vitt, a conservation scientist at Chicago Botanic Garden, says others will not be able to shift their ranges to keep pace with global warming.

Vitt says that conservation workers will need to adapt new strategies. These may eventually include introducing plants to areas where they currently don’t grow.

And the deep summer droughts that are projected for the Midwest will severely impact the ability of plants to reproduce, says Vitt.

Vitt curates the National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank at the garden. She’s urging nature lovers to begin collecting seeds as a hedge against plant extinction.

“We can collect them now and maybe in 10 years will be able to make them available for the future,” says Vitt.

While participants agreed on the necessity of reducing carbon emissions, land conservation emerged at the conference as a major strategy for slowing climate change.

The amount of carbon tied up in soils and vegetation is twice the amount that’s now in the atmosphere, says Bob Moseley, director of conservation with the Illinois chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

And it’s twice as much as all the carbon contained by all the world’s oil reserves.

Yet the destruction of native habitats continues apace, and it accounts for almost 20 percent of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere—more than the world’s entire transportation network, says Moseley.

“Land conservation has to be a part of the solution,” says Moseley. “It’s actually more economically efficient to avert the loss of native ecosystems than some other solutions like creating efficiencies and new technologies.”

Despite its benefits, land conservation didn't figure in the 25 policy recommendations suggested by a task force on global warming assembled by Governor Rod Blagojevich in 2007, says Moseley.