OH Really? Listener Asks How Climate Change Will Affect Northeast Ohio

Mar 11, 2020

To paraphrase a quote from the 1990s sitcom "NewsRadio": Winter in Northeast Ohio is the best seven months of the year.  But that may not be true in the future. The four warmest winters on record occurred in the past decade.  This edition of WKSU’s OH Really? answers a listener question about how climate change might affect Northeast Ohio in the future.

This month in the Cleveland MetroParks, hundreds of people have spent part of their weekend hiking through the Rocky River Reservation to get a taste of the history of maple sugaring.

The plot of temperature anomalies since 1880 shows rapid warming over the past decade.
Credit NASA/NOAA

Historical Interpreter Beth Robb shows visitors how sap is collected.  It’s something she says can only happen in climates like Northeast Ohio’s, with below freezing nights and above freezing days to essentially compress the sap out of a tree.  But a 2018 study in the journal Ecology found that climate change is impacting the quality and quantity of maple syrup. 

Dane Johnson has seen it first-hand. He’s the sugar master at the Rocky River Reservation who boils the sap into syrup. “It does affect the trees; we’ve actually already seen that. We can’t say, ‘end of February, we’re going to tap trees and go till April.’ You have to ride along with Mother Nature and see what she has to give us.”

Don Baechtel from Elyria is concerned, too. "Ohio’s pretty well-known for its sugar maple groves, and I’ve heard each year they produce less sap.  The trees are actually dying; it’s getting too warm for them."

He wants to know if that’s a harbinger of things to come.

“How will climate change affect Ohio?  The weather, the lakes, the plants, the trees, the animals, the fish, and the birds?”

Ask the experts
Peter Whiting is a professor in the Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences Department at Case 

Dane Johnson (right) is sugar master at Cleveland Metroparks Rocky River Reservation. His apprentice, Wiley Greenway, is learning how to spot the exact moment that sap has been perfectly boiled into maple syrup. Johnson says the sap gathering season has been shrinking and moving earlier as temperatures grow warmer.
Credit KABIR BHATIA / WKSU

Western Reserve University in Cleveland who says climate change has already affected Northeast Ohio.

“What we’re really talking about is what we call anthropogenic, manmade climate change. It’s like putting an extra blanket on the Earth. That blanket is one that lets in energy, but keeps it from going out to space and we get warmer. We’ve already gotten maybe a degree, degree-and-a-half Fahrenheit warmer over the last 30 or 40 years.”

Earlier this year, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration analyzed temperature data back to 1880 and found the same thing. They also listed the five warmest years on record, which were the last five years, 2015-19.

What does it mean?
So what does this mean for the future in Northeast Ohio? Whiting says it could make conditions here more like the climate in St. Louis.

“It’s known for its really hot and very humid summers. We could have 30-plus days above 90 degrees. We typically have a handful. We’ll have costs associated with transitioning to that; more air conditioning, probably have more intense downbursts of rain.”

And he says that will cause more flooding, and changes to our infrastructure.

“Raise road beds that are near rivers, or widen culverts. More soil and then fertilizer and other nutrients washed out to the lake exacerbating algal blooms or even expanded dead zones to change the fishery.”

That would also mean shorter, warmer winters.

“If we keep going forward and the climate warms that much more, it seems hard to keep having about the same amount of snow. So I would imagine in the future, we would start to see less snow.”

But he says we could be insulated from at least one aspect of climate change.

“In Cleveland, Lake Erie is 500 or 600 feet above sea level. Under no conceivable scenario would sea level rise globally enough to have sea water lapping into Cleveland.”

Peter Whiting is a professor in Case Western Reserve University's Department of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences.
Credit KABIR BHATIA / WKSU

Mitigating the effects
Whiting cautions against being fatalistic and says it’s better to concentrate on ways to mitigate the effects of climate change, by doing things such as planting trees.

“They can soak up CO2. We won’t be able to plant our way out of reducing the amount of harm associated with global warming, but it is one of the tools we could use.”

That’s an idea that appeals to Don Baechtel, our question-asker, who feels the perfect places for that are the Cleveland or Summit Metro Parks.

“I think there’s several parks in the area that don’t have as many trees as they could. So I think it’s possible some organization is willing to donate the trees, if people are willing to plant them. Even though the benefit is not huge, compared to the problem, it’s at least something that’s relatively easy to do. It will have benefits for many years if the trees do well.”

And Peter Whiting says there’s no time to waste.

“We need to be making these moves today because it’s not clear that there’s the technological fix that’s going to get us out of the challenges we face.

“You can accept the truth, and then still argue about what to do about it.  But we’re well beyond arguing that the world is warming.”

Ask your question for OH Really?, WKSU’s initiative to make you part of the reporting process.

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