Record Rain in Madison is What Climate Change Looks Like – Especially in Midwest

It’s been more than 24 hours since a severe weather system stalled out over Dane County and dumped anywhere from 3.92 (Dane County Airport), to 11.63 (National Weather Service in Middleton) to an unconfirmed 15.33 inches of rain in Cross Plains.

Initially, all of that water couldn’t get off the land fast enough, causing extreme flooding in areas west of Madison and stranding people in restaurants and stores, washing out a bridge on Highway 14 and pulling one stalled motorist to his death. 

Today, that water is still working its way downstream and our lake levels are rising. Lake Mendota isn’t just knocking at our back door, it’s let itself in.

As the state’s media outlets take stock of the damage and report on estimated clean up costs and interview a whole bunch of people who have “never seen anything like this,” we can’t help but notice a glaring omission in all of the news reports we’ve read – climate change has yet to be mentioned. 

And this isn’t just a Wisconsin issue. A recent report found that, across all platforms, news coverage of extreme events is falling short on reporting on climate change. Out of 127 segments aired about this summer’s global heat wave, only one mentioned climate change. NBC and ABC never even brought it up during this record-breaking hurricane season. 

Now, before you get your feathers all ruffled, yes, we know that it is impossible to pin a singular weather event on climate change. There are too many variables at play to say climate change caused the outbreak of 70 tornadoes in Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina this April, or the costliest hurricane season on record in 2017, or the rain that fell from last Monday night to Tuesday morning.

But, let’s think of this another way. Just because a doctor can’t point to a patient’s lung cancer and say, with 100% certainty, that their 2-pack-a-day smoking habit caused it, that patient was far more likely than a non-smoker to develop lung cancer. We can’t isolate smoking as the primary variable behind that individual’s disease – factors like genetics or diet could have played a role. But we still print “Smoking Kills” on cigarette packages. 

Likewise, there are things we can say when reporting on the weather in this era of climate change. Researchers have been documenting weather events for decades and they’ve noticed some alarming trends. In the U.S., extreme tornado outbreaks are increasing. Hurricanes are getting more intense. And extreme precipitation events are much more common than they used to be especially in the Midwest and Northeast U.S.

Global warming has changed the stage upon which the weather performs.

Courtesy National Climate Assessment. 

Perhaps the closest any outlet came to mentioning climate change in the Madison market was NBC 15, which quoted Madison mayor Paul Soglin as saying “We talk about 100 year events normally, now what we’re witnessing — hopefully, is a 500 year event and not more frequently.”

Technically, a 500-year weather event (or “recurrence event”) is something that has a 1 in 500 chance of happening in any given year. A 100-year event’s probability is 1 in 100. But this concept is showing its age, and doesn’t properly reflect the realities of how conditions have changed since it was first coined in the 1950s. As an example, according to this article from WisCONTEXT,  Dane County has had 80 flood events in just over 150 years. 

To echo a familiar refrain on our warmer planet, these flood events are getting more common. Sorry, Mayor Soglin, but about the only thing we can say for sure it that it won’t be 500 years before we see another flood event in Madison. 

In other words, this is what climate change looks like. 

Meanwhile, Lake Mendota water is swamping our Wet Lab with ankle deep water. It would be worse if not for the Aqua Dam, or inflatable dike, we have for just such an occasion. 

Our facility manager, Dave Harring, has only deployed the device a couple of times before and the high lake levels then, he says, were from days and days of sustained rain, not a singular event. Still, we’re more prepared than most to deal with water in our basement. There’s always a nice pool for our boats to float in, even if it’s not usually so deep. And we’ll reinstall the pier once the waters subside and set up some industrial fans downstairs to dry things out. 

We’ll also be keeping a closer eye on the weather. Because we’ve seen it in our own work- from shrinking lake ice to declining walleye populations to increasing harmful algae blooms – climate change is not just some future problem looming on the horizon. It’s here now. And we’re dealing with its impacts.

27 thoughts on “Record Rain in Madison is What Climate Change Looks Like – Especially in Midwest”

  1. The disinclination of the local media to SAY IT, even though this is something that has now seriously impacted our community is an example of self-censorship. It is not for fear of government suppression or direct consequences. Media and even individuals decide to just step back from saying the words because it’s easier than grappling with the predictable ensuing debate. As the mantra that “no specific instance can be tied to it” has been repeated enough, it now becomes a case where we can’t even say what is right before our eyes. When censorship gets programmed in in this manner, it is the most effective of all. Thanks for this statement of reality. Maybe more will decide that the dangers override their concerns.

  2. Not only is the news not reporting on “Climate Change,” but news and government is not calling it by it’s more incendiary and meaningful name, “Global Warming.”
    Isn’t the time for politicians and other “Authorities” to stop pulling the wool over the eyes of America and the rest of the world by using such an amorphous phrase – Climate Change?
    I think that it is time.

    1. My understanding of the adoption of “climate change” by non-scientific media outlets was to bring people on board to the concept of global warming without using the word “warm.” I’ve seen comments in forums that ridicule the idea that extreme weather events are caused by global warming when the weather is cold – an extreme cold snap, or a colder-than-average stretch of weather in the spring or summer.

  3. I believe that the majority of Americans are informed and concerned about global warming. However if we don’t make our environment our number one priority when voting for politicians, we only have ourselves to blame.

  4. This is an intriguing HYPOTHESIS. It should be tested with more rigorous science than shown here (not on a blog, but in the peer-reviewed literature). I’m suspicious about unconfirmed estimates of precipitation taken to the hundredths place (i.e., 15.33″). I’m suspicious by a lack of a hypothesis and rejection criteria, rigorous methods and statistics, and a stated level of significance with estimates of uncertainty. Thus far, the presumed long-term link to “climate change,” based on this short-term information is premature. You may be on the right track, but your mission is far from “accomplished.” Good luck with your research. Cheers, Tom

    1. Hi Tom,
      If you read the blog post, we are careful to explain that the single intense storm is not proof of climate change. What it is is yet another example of the kinds of storms that are growing more common and more intense over the last few decades – in other words, it is a sign of things to come. And it is more an observation than a hypothesis. It’s also an accepted theory (i.e. a very well-tested hyopothesis) in science that warm air holds more moisture and intensifies storms – it’s a basic law that meteorologists use when predicting the weather. I probably should have pointed people to more peer-reviewed articles to this fact (although I did link to several in the body of the text). Here are a few that might help show that this hypothesis is one that has been tested by many scientists in many studies. (Also, I should note that scientists have been predicting these impacts for decades) The National Climate Assessment: https://nca2014.globalchange.gov/report/our-changing-climate/precipitation-change
      Increased Crop Damage and extreme rain events – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959378002000080
      Increased Flood Damage (study finds climate plays an important role but, as pointed out in our blog post, can’t be pegged as the determining factor – see the smoking/cancer analogy) – https://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/abs/10.1175/1520-0442(2000)013%3C3625%3APADFTI%3E2.0.CO%3B2
      And more (you could literally spend all week finding and reading articles about how warmer average temperatures result in increased extreme rain events, which inevitably lead to flooding). – https://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/abs/10.1175/JCLI3339.1

  5. The daily news business has a job. That job is to report the daily news, weather and sports. Predictions are limited to the next week (weather) or the next game (sports). I agree that it is not their job to announce to their listeners or readers that “climate change” is the cause of a singular event or a season. They have almost no access to the data to determine with confidence “climate change”. They have no climatologists on staff or on retainer. They do have meteorologists; weather people. If a local story is about the weather of late and the reporter wants to find out the scientific determination or cause, they should ask a climatologist. Madison has plenty who are well-versed on the subject. I hear them on WPR almost monthly. The reporter very probably not get the answer, “climate change”. They will probably get an answer about anomalies in the behavior of the jet stream, the global effects of a particularly dity volcano blast or some other. Justifiably so.

    1. Hi Peter. Our take is that the daily news media has a job to inform its readers/listeners/viewers about subjects that matter to them so that they can then make informed decisions. If storms like the recent downpour are becoming more common, then that is information that should be shared. If the meteorologist predicts rain, it’s important to share that so people can prepare – grab an umbrella, roll up the car windows, etc. If a climatologist predicts increasingly frequent and intense rain events, then people also need to know that so that they can prepare – better drainage around their homes, preparation for flooding in places that previously saw little of it, check their insurance policies for coverage, etc. And, perhaps most importantly, the media should connect the dots. Human activity has caused average global temperatures to warm, which in turn impacts how our climate works, which in turn leads to different weather patterns. If we aren’t informed about the causes of the problem, we can’t work toward a solution. Reporters call experts all of the time – economists, engineers, toxicologists, etc. They can also reach out to climate scientists to help put these weather events in better context.

  6. I realize that the overwhelming majority of scientists and researchers are in agreement about the cause and impacts of climate change, but there’s this guy named Russ on Facebook whose profile picture is of a Ford F250 Bushwhacker with a custom lift kit, and he says climate change is b.s.. I gotta go with Russ on this one.

  7. Not only this, but blizzards dumping 60+” of snow in the northeast, a record 3 category 4 hurricanes in the southeast, record drought in the west causing the worst wildfires in California history and enough smoke from British Columbia to blanket the entire Pacific northwest. When will people finally notice the pink elephant in the room and more importantly, take action?

  8. The signs of unusual weather events all over the world are increasing. Scientists have told us that erratic weather will result from climate change. I am not sure what benefit people derive from denying that the events several other people have described above have anything in common with one another, or saying that they are simply a matter of changes in the jet stream or some other “local” cause. The fact is that these events are occurring all over the world. As the carbon load in our atmosphere increases, so do the events. We can make changes to reduce the carbon load we as humans are adding to our fragile system. We can’t go back to the weather I remember from the 1950’s or even the1990’s but if we pay attention and make some changes in our life styles, it is possible that we may be able to mitigate further damage to some degree. We owe to ourselves, our children and our grandchildren as well as to all the other species on earth to do what is morally right.

    1. Thanks, Jane! We missed this as we combed through the immediate reporting after the flood. Will be sure to give credit where it’s due – the Journal Sentinel has been providing excellent environment coverage in Wisconsin for decades

      1. The Weather Guys over at the university used to talk about it a bit when they had a regular column in the paper. And they’d get grief about it. People just don’t want to listen. Sadly most papers had reporters well-versed on environmental issues but over the years they’ve been downsized or shoved out the door.
        WisContext – a partnership of Extension, WPR and WPT – had a great look at this in November, too. They do great work on topics such as this, I wish more people knew of them.

  9. Would lowering the median level of Lake Mendota allow it to hold the water from these more frequent heavy rains, so that it doesn’t immediately get dumped into the Yahara and cause flooding downstream? The level of Mendota now is higher than it was a century ago, and with less permeable land surrounding the lake (a result of urban development), it would seem prudent to adjust the level of Mendota downward so it can hold the increased run-off.

    1. Hi Rodney, one county board member is already proposing this – https://yogeshchawla.com/d6-updates/2018/8/23/dane-county-floods – and, yes, lowering Mendota’s level would allow more room to “store” run off and more slowly move it downstream. That said, an inch of rain fall equals a roughly three-times increase in corresponding water levels in the Lake Mendota watershed, so trying to engineer a plan for an 11+ inch rainfall is pretty difficult and not a total solution to preventing flooding.

  10. Much of Wisconsin used to be covered with a glacier — that eventually retreated and caused some catastrophic water events (e.g., how we got the Wisconsin Dells). Climates change!

    1. Hi Melinda,
      You are absolutely right – climates do change and they change for many reasons. Our current climate change is caused by human-produced greenhouse gases greatly increasing in our atmosphere. These are the same kinds of gases (carbon dioxide, methane, etc.) that make our planet habitable but too much of a good thing is never a good thing! As for the last Ice Age, that climate change was caused in large part by changes in the Earth’s orbit and, interestingly enough, we should be in the ballpark of the next Ice Age, except we caused global warming and that’s seemed to have delayed things!

    2. Hi Melinda,
      One other point we’re often curious about when someone tells us that “the climate is always changing,” is what the “so what” of that statement is. Are you suggesting we should do nothing about the increasing frequency of extreme rain events? Whatever your reasons for dismissing humanity’s role in our warming world, the fact that global average temperatures are increasing and extreme rain events are getting more common in the Midwest doesn’t change. Those are simple observations made from recording weather data and reading thermometers. So, since we know those things, shouldn’t we do what we can – like lower lake levels to absorb more runoff and increase permeable surfaces in our cities to reduce runoff and just, you know, plan ahead for these things?

  11. The entire Earth is now obviously getting affected by this climate change and it’s very hard and sad to see. If only every individual will have discipline I’m sure this problem will be solved.

  12. Here in IN, what consistently keeps happening is that we’ll have a warm, rainy day, and the very next day everything will freeze. Just last weekend it rained so much in a day that the ground felt like wet cardboard, mud was oozing from the ground when you stepped. The next day everything froze.

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