The photo is both curious and disturbing: a massive octopus, sprawled across the floor of a Miami parking garage.
Discovered in the aftermath of the King Tide, which hit Florida in November 2016, the image of the displaced sea creature has served to validate concerns of climate change, and set the tone for Coulee Region Climate Change Stories forum, held yesterday at the La Crosse Public Library.
Six panelists spoke at event, a collaboration between the La Crosse Chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Change Lobby and the Coulee Region Sierra Club, giving personal accounts of how climate change has affected their careers, hobbies or livelihoods. Some three dozen community members were in attendance at the two hour event, which concluded with a question and answer session.
“The thing about the Coulee Region is we rely on tourism, agriculture and (outdoor recreation),” said Barry McKnight, community engagement librarian for the La Crosse Public Library. “Our city is really going to feel the impact of climate change. We’re trying to create an open dialogue, and these stories help people relate and connect with the issues of climate change.”
Casey Meehan, sustainability coordinator at Western Technical College, opened the forum with a brief slide show, following the image of the stranded octopus with one of Feisty the seal, who was located in the middle of a Duluth street after the Lake Superior Zoo was ravaged by severe flooding.
“It’s like the canaries in the coal mine — we can see the warning signs,” Meehan said, referring to the old practice of bringing the toxin-sensitive birds into the mines to detect carbon monoxide. “But with (climate change) we can’t run away.”
Since 1970, the average annual temperature in La Crosse is 4.5 degrees warmer, with the average frost occurring one week later. Incidents of heavy downpours have increased 37 percent since 1950, with a 72 percent rise in days with winter rains since 1949.
“Data can certainly inform us,” Meehan said. “But data is completely impotent without the stories behind it.”
Jack Hedin, owner of Featherstone Farm in Rushford, Minn., shared how excessive rainfall has been a detriment to his crops, and thus his business, which he says is “hanging by a thread.”
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“Fresh market vegetables are married to climate,” Hedin said. “We need a partner who’s not too moody.”
In 2009, when Hedin farmed in Winona, a barrage of 20 inches of rain withing a 24 hour period destroyed 80 percent of his crops. Heavy rains and subsequent root rot and foliar diseases in 2016 brought a loss of $360,000 in crops.
“Climate change has been the story of my life,” said Hedin, who is concerned about the future of his farm. “With an ambiguous, unresolved ending at this time, I don’t know where is goes from here.”
Further demonstrating the impact of increasing rainfall, Chuck Lee, president of the Friends of the La Crosse River Marsh, shared images of the marsh buried in high waters. The marsh has flooded four times over the past two years, Lee said, with the river shifting to withing 10 to 15 feet of the walking path.
Torrential rains nearly washed away the GROW La Crosse student gardens this past July, said Jamie O’Neill, executive director of the organization, leaving her questioning how to discuss the possible loss with the kids who spent days diligently planting and tending to the vegetables.
“Do we tell the truth?” O’Neill asked of impact of global warming. “In order to prepare them for the future, we have to get them to be environmental ambassadors.”
Beyond crops, climate change has had an injurious affect on the maple tree. Jon Rigden, a physician with Mayo Clinic Health System and maple syrup producer, says a successful tap is reliant on “Goldilocks” weather, warm during the day and cold at night, the temperature change creating the needed to pressure to expel the sap from the tree. A typical tapping season spans four weeks, but in 2013, continuously warm temperatures left Rigden with a mere four day window, disappointing for a hobbiest like himself but potentially ruinous for a career tapper. In addition, the sugar content of sap has reduced by 50 percent over the fast 50 years, requiring twice as many gallons to create pure maple syrup.
Rigden fears the extinction of the maple tree in general, the species harmed by warmer temperatures.
“One hundred years from now, we may not have maples anymore,” Rigden said. “And those fall colors we enjoy so much won’t be there anymore.”
For more information on how climate change is impacting the Coulee Region, visit https://citizensclimatelobby.org/chapters/WI_La_Crosse.