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.