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Can You Take the Heat?

Patrick Doran Talks Climate Change at Cranbrook

Patrick Doran, director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Michigan, recently kicked off the six-part lecture series "What's So Great About the Great Lakes?" at the Cranbrook Institute of Science. He discussed how scientists are thinking about and planning for climate change, how it faces organizational choices and what people can individually do to help.

You can watch his full lecture here or catch the top takeaways below.

The Nature Conservancy:

What is the difference between weather and climate?

Dr. Patrick Doran:

I always go to my nephew’s Facebook page and I see his friend’s say, “well, it snowed today in April, so that means there is no climate change.” No, that is weather. Weather is individual, day-to-day atmospheric events. Climate is the statistical average of those events. Weather is short-term and chaotic and thus inherently unpredictable beyond a few days. Climate is the long-term average weather and is controlled by larger forces, such as the composition of atmosphere; climate is more predictable on longer timescales.

Weather determines what clothes you wear today. Climate determines your wardrobe. If you live in a nice, warm climate, you aren't going to have a lot of down sweaters in your closet. If you live in a cold climate, you aren't going to have a lot of shorts or T-shirts.

The Nature Conservancy:

How has the climate changed?

Dr. Patrick Doran:

In the last 100 years, our global average surface temperature has increased 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit and our global sea level has increased six inches. Since 1978, our northern hemisphere snow cover has been decreasing 2.7 percent per decade.

It’s not the change that is the problem. Ecology is all about change; that is what nature does. What’s alarming is the rate of change. If you have children, you know they change with each year, sometimes from month to month. Imagine your son growing six inches in a year; that’s freaky. This same rate of change is freaky to nature. Nature isn’t used to this rate of change.

There is a cool map on NASA’s web site that shows this rate of change from the 1850’s through about 2010, here. The red on the map shows areas changing faster than normal and the blue shows areas changing slower than normal. Climate change is not the same in every place around the world.

The Nature Conservancy:

What changes can we expect to see in the Great Lakes region?

Dr. Patrick Doran:

Predictions show that by 2050 we expect warmer average temperatures—increasing between 1.8 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit—warmer winter nights, more intense weather events, more precipitation in the winter months—likely rain. The Great Lakes themselves will see overall warmer temperatures and less ice. So, for example, the climate in Michigan today is predicted to be more like the climate in Ohio by mid-century. By the end of the century, Michigan’s climate could be more like the current climate of Missouri. In Illinois, it is projected to feel more like Oklahoma or Arkansas by mid-century and like Texas by the end of the century.

The Nature Conservancy:

How do changes in climate affect our lands and waters?

Dr. Patrick Doran:

These observed and projected rates of climate change pose major threats to our natural systems, and they raise a lot of questions for the people who depend upon these natural systems and for the natural resource managers, policy makers and conservation practitioners working to restore and protect them.

Our natural systems provide us with many services, like fiber for our products, our food and our freshwater. They also regulate climate, water filtration and diseases, and they provide cultural services like a sense of place, relaxation and spiritual meaning. We value all of these things, and the effects of climate change pose threats to these natural benefits.

For example, increased temperatures and drought affect how trees in a forest grow. This will influence the prescribed fire regimen and management techniques. Warmer temperatures also create conditions for new pests and pathogens, which can destroy forests; take the pine beetle out west for example.

The increasing intensity of precipitation and warmer temperatures that cause drought can lead to more sediment and nutrients running off into our streams and waterways. This level of precipitation and heat also means fewer crops because of harsh growing conditions. In a region that's landscape is predominately agricultural, this holds economic impacts, too.

All of these changes above, in addition to increasing water temperature, can also lead to algal blooms in our coastal areas. This causes increased toxicity in our water and lake levels decreasing beyond average.

One key point to note is that climate change will amplify many of the already existing stressors to our natural areas.

The Nature Conservancy:

How is The Nature Conservancy battling climate change?

Dr. Patrick Doran:

At the local level, The Nature Conservancy is working to adapt its conservation practices in a way that will help our natural systems function under these changed climatic conditions. When all of us do this locally, it makes a global difference; together we’re reducing the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and slowing the rate of climate change.

Across the Great Lakes, we’re implementing sustainable forestry practices that make our forests more diverse, robust and able to handle higher temperatures and drier conditions. In our coastal areas, the Conservancy is restoring wetlands that will help with fluctuating lake levels. And, throughout the watersheds, we’re working with farmers to implement conservation methods that will reduce the amount of runoff entering our waterways, helping reduce algal blooms.

The Nature Conservancy:

What can people do at home to help?

Dr. Patrick Doran:

Be aware of these changes; attend lectures like this series at Cranbrook to educate yourself. You can bring these ideas home to your businesses, organizations, local water boards and city planning offices; ask the question, what does your business plan look like in the future? You can also calculate your personal carbon footprint on nature.org. Each of us individually has a role in reducing the impacts of climate change.


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