Greenhouse gas emissions and temperatures are actively changing the life and landscape not just of the far rising reaches of the world; scientists are observing the effects in McLean County.
Climate change is a global problem that is often considered the responsibility of governments and local that will change the world in the future.
Dr. Trent Ford is the Illinois State Climatologist and is based in Champaign.
“It’s a real issue not just for places that we’ve never been to or never heard of before; it’s an issue here in Illinois. We are experiencing the impacts of that. We will continue to experience the impacts of that.”
Edward Shimon is the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service stationed in Lincoln, Illinois.
He has been working with weather and climatology since 1994 and has been in Central Illinois since 2005.
Shimon said that temperatures have become more extreme and varying in recent years.
“Variability is definitely increasing it seems like. When it’s cold, it’s really cold. When it’s hot, it’s really hot. We’re seeing more extremes in that sense,” Shimon said.
He said that this variability makes it much more difficult to predict weather accurately.
In addition to temperature variability, both Ford and Shimon said that spring in Illinois has become “warmer and wetter.”
According to Shimon, this is leading to greater frequency and intensity of storms.
“When the atmosphere is warmer,” Shimon said, “it can hold more moisture, and then in turn will create more intense rainfall rates from any of the storms that do develop.”
While Shimon said that storms are becoming more intense and frequent, there is a limit to how powerful a precipitation event can be, based on atmospheric properties. He said, because the atmosphere is being charged with more energy, and more precipitation more frequently, there are going to be more storms.
And those storms are going to be stronger, Shimon said.
Dr. Nicholas Heller, associate professor of crop sciences at Illinois State University, said this increase in precipitation is causing damage to farming communities across Central Illinois.
Heller said that the Environmental Protection Agency has taken note of this.
“The EPA and the [Illinois] Nutrient Resource & Education Council have been documenting run-off and loss from the fields for a number of years now,” Heller said. “And their most recent report indicates that yes, our bigger storms are in fact leading to more loss from agricultural fields.”
Heller said that ISU, which has two research farms, has been experimenting with different ways to combat the negative effects of climate change.
ISU is trying two main things, Heller said: cover crops and no-till.
Cover cropping is a practice of planting things like hay or vegetation for grazing in a field where the main row crop, corn, for instance, has already been harvested. By covering the soil with other vegetation, it protects against erosion, weeds and soil diseases.
“No-till is exactly what it sounds like,” Heller said.
Tilling is the farming process of turning over the soil after a crop has been harvested.
This is done either in the winter or the spring and, according to Heller, proponents say that this helps to dry out the soil for spring planting.
However, this exposes the soil to more water and air erosion, something that more frequent and intense storms exacerbate, Heller said.
“That happens a lot in McLean County too. If you drive around and see a lot of those tilled fields, especially after [a storm], where that water…has to run somewhere, it doesn’t all go into the ground. Especially if its frozen or the water table is already high enough that it can’t go down into the soil, it runs off the top. And it carries with it those free particles of soil,” Heller said
According to the EPA, in addition to soil erosion, this is leading to increased pollution from fertilizer run-off.
The EPA states that Illinois has a minimum goal of 15% pollutant reduction based on levels from 1980-1996.
However, the biennial report from 2021 found that nitrogen and phosphorous pollutants from fertilizer run-off went in the opposite direction, increasing to the highest levels in 2015-2019 since the EPA started tracking run-off pollution.
Beyond affecting farmers, Ford said that there is an increase of vector insects in Illinois. Vector insects, like ticks and mosquitoes, carry parasites and diseases that can affect larger animals, like humans.
“There’ve been multiple varieties or species of ticks that have been documented in Illinois over the last five to six years that previously were not documented in Illinois,” Ford said.
“It still remains unclear how much climate change does influence tick ranges,” Ford said.
He said that there is a documented link between vector-borne diseases and climate change, but scientists cannot yet accurately predict the future of that relationship and its effect on humans.
Ford also noted that climate change negatively affects pollinating insects and birds and their relationships with perennial and flowering plants, which lie dormant in winter.
“The change in our winter and spring climate can cause an earlier dormancy break meaning that when the plant is flowering the pollinator that typically pollinates that plant is not there,” Ford said.
Beyond this timing mismatch, Ford said that more intense heat waves in spring and early summer can damage the timing relationship between pollinators and plants.
“The list is almost endless of the number of agronomically important crops that pollinators play an important role in. We have those impacts, and those impacts have been documented,” Ford said.
According to Scientific American, scientists have known that fossil fuel emissions and greenhouse gases cause a significant impact on the climate for over 40 years.
Ford said, “transportation, globally and within the US, makes up a significant chunk of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s about 30% here in the United States, but if we attribute electrical generation to transportation, it increases that even more.”
In February, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited Heartland Community College and said that Illinois is leading the nation in producing electric vehicles (EVs), and they plan to aggressively upgrade the EV charging infrastructure. Buttigieg noted that using carbon-based electricity to charge EVs is better than having internal combustion engines on the road.
Ford, referencing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said that is not enough.
“By putting in 10,000 [electrical vehicle chargers] today, a significant chunk of that electricity would still be generated on fossil fuel power,” Ford said.
“The most important point is that we electrify the transportation industry, especially personal transportation,” Ford said, “as quickly as possible while also moving our electrical grid, the generation, to low or no carbon sources as quickly as possible. So, both have to happen in parallel.”
Ford noted that not every person is able to take a strong stance against climate change.
“If somebody is working three jobs to make ends meet and keeps their kids in school and things like that,” Ford said, “it’s challenging for me to say ‘hey, you need to care about climate change. Put solar panels up on your house.”’”
He also said that the solutions to climate change require more help from leaders.
“We aren’t short on solutions for climate change, what we’re short on is political will. That’s basically [the IPCC’s] conclusion,” Ford said. “We have these strategies, these solutions laid out in front of us. We just need to get there. And it takes political will to do so.”
Ford said more advocacy is needed; that people need to push the political system “for policy that brings these solutions that we already have to fruition.”
Because, Ford said, the effects of climate change are not in the distant future.
He said that the actions, or inactions, that people take now to combat the negative effects of climate change “will dictate the extent, the magnitude of how much we suffer from climate change.”