The hottest spring ever. Hundred-year storms. The first tornado in 45 years to scythe through La Crosse. And now we’re on the brink of another record: The latest into spring without a 60-degree day.
There’s little doubt the Coulee Region has seen its share of extreme weather.
But is it happening more often, and is it caused by climate change?
Depends on who you ask, even among regional climate scientists.
“It’s very noisy data,” said Dr. Michael Notaro of the University of Wisconsin’s Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research. “That’s the challenge with climate change research.”
Climate trends are measured over decades, not years, he said. So it’s impossible to make conclusions about an incredibly warm spring last year or a cool one this year.
“You can’t attribute it to climate change,” Notaro said. “That was part of natural variability.”
Others point to recent extreme weather and increasing average temperatures as a sure sign the climate in La Crosse is changing.
The average temperature in the city in 1870s, shortly after official record keeping began, was 46.3 degrees. It’s been 49 in the 2010s — and 47 degrees or higher in 13 of the past 15 years.
Models averaged by the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts expect the La Crosse area to experience weather typical of Muscatine, Iowa — 220 miles to the south — by about 2050.
By 2081, it’ll feel like Wichita, Kan.
Such projections demand immediate action, says Joel Charles, a member of the political activist group Citizens Climate Lobby.
“It’s already harming human health. Those impacts are significant, and they’re only going to get worse the longer we wait,” said Charles, a student in Madison who plans to settle in the Coulee Region.
“Climate change is very likely to go past the tipping point and become irreversible,” over the next 5-10 years, he said.
The politics of weather
Seventeen meteorologists work at the National Weather Service’s La Crosse office. And you’ll hear a wide variety of climate opinions among them, said Glenn Lussky, the office’s lead meteorologist.
His opinions represent his personal views as a scientist, not the weather service, he said.
He believes humans have caused climate change. But he’s not too worried about it; he thinks that natural processes could account for a majority of changes. And he isn’t sold on models that show the impacts of global warming contributing to further temperature increases.
For him, the debate over climate change resembles the past two springs: two extremes.
“It’s a shame that people and ideas are pigeonholed into classifications of alarmism or science deniers,” Lussky said. “I don’t know that I’ve seen any two people that would be classified by some as skeptics that would agree with each other.“
Calling the debate on climate change closed is the antithesis of science, Lussky said. And combining science with politics isn’t always a great mix.
“If you’re going to stay true to the science, becoming an advocate… it takes away from that,” he said.
Lussky earned his master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin, doing research for the Center for Climatic Research that Notaro helps guide. Yet, he disagrees with some of its conclusions.
“There’s so much we don’t know,” he said.
That 2011 tornado in La Crosse? It was the first since 1966, but there were two in that decade alone. Lussky cited data showing that tornados aren’t increasing in severity, and increases in reported twisters are tied to better detection and reporting.
Personal bias can also play a role, said Lussky, including himself in that category. And data analysis isn’t always a cut and dry process.
“That’s probably where good scientists on both sides of the debate will differ — what they consider to be sound methods.”