Monitoring signs of a changing climate

By Matt Reese

Heat waves, droughts, windstorms and other weather extremes seem to be increasingly common. The weather seems to be changing, but it can often be hard to quantify and actually compare those changes. And, after the drought this year, many are wondering about the future of weather and rainfall trends.

“It is hard to look at a single year and make decisions. We have to look at trends,” said Sam Custer, with Ohio State University Extension in Darke County. “Over the past 100 years, we are trending to a warmer environment with more weather extremes. Research from Ohio State indicates that we will probably average close to what we have seen in terms of average rainfall, but we will see more extremes.”

While the change is a concern for a number of reasons, agriculture in Ohio could actually benefit significantly with the changes.

“In Ohio, we will probably not be hit by extremes like the western Corn Belt,” Custer said. “We may benefit from the higher prices and better weather than some of our counterparts in the western part of the country. We will be hit with some severe rain amounts, but averages will be similar. Summers will tend to be a little drier and we may get more moisture in the fall than we’ve had in the past.”

In an OSU Extension Fact Sheet on the subject, Thomas W. Blaine shared these sentiments:

“As for implications for Ohio, most climate models predict substantially warmer winters and slightly hotter summers. Some indicate that summers would also be drier than at present. Thus, agriculture would be faced with a longer and drier growing season. Adaptations might include the introduction of crops (such as cotton) that are not possible given the current climate. The reduction of the number and severity of winter storms would unquestionably benefit farmers, but the increasing likelihood of summer droughts could present a real challenge for agriculture. In contrast with rising sea levels, the levels of the Great Lakes, including Lake Erie, are expected to drop by an average of 7 to 8 feet, primarily because of reduced rainfall and increased use of irrigation.”

To document the rainfall changes that may, or may not, be occurring as the climate changes, Extension is partially relying on a volunteer weather collection system in Ohio and around the country called the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCORaHS). This grassroots volunteer network of backyard weather observers of all ages and backgrounds measures and maps rain, hail and snow in their local communities on a daily basis. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are major sponsors of CoCoRaHS. In addition to Extension, the precipitation data generated by CoCoRaHS is used by meteorologists, hydrologists, emergency managers, city utilities, insurance adjusters, USDA, engineers, farmers and others.

Custer said that there are volunteers at CoCoRaHS sites around Ohio and the country so that, as the climate change debate moves forward, decisions can be made on documented numbers and not just a bunch of hot air.

For more on CoCoRaHS, visit www.cocorahs.org.

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