this is not the “new normal” of climate change, it’s a stop on the way to somewhere else

This summer, I led a workshop for journalists (my other gig is with the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources) on the legacy of the Clean Water Act. We were in Cleveland, Ohio and Kyle Dreyfuss-Wells, the CEO of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District was giving a tour of a massive green infrastructure project that had recently been built to help capture stormwater before it could flood adjacent neighborhoods and overwhelm the city’s storm sewer system.

As Dreyfuss-Wells walked and talked about the challenge of preparing for a future of more frequent extreme rain events, she said something that made me realize I’d been thinking about climate change wrong.

“This is not the new normal.” Dreyfuss-Wells said. “This is the path to some whacked-out normal.”

Courtesy: Wisconsin State Climatology Office

Readers of this blog may remember a post from last August that made some waves (sorry, couldn’t help myself) in which we wrote about the record rainfall totals and historic lake levels and declared that “this is what climate change looks like.”

And it’s true. Look at this year. Heavy rains rewrote Wisconsin’s precipitation record books. Again. And much of that news coverage simply reported “the weather” and failed to mention climate change. Again.

Here in Madison, all five of the Yahara Lakes are under “slow-no-wake” restrictions, well above summer maximum levels set by the county and flirting with “100 year flood” levels. Again.

And, here at Hasler Lab, our basement is flooded. Again. And our pier washed away. Again. (Although this may say more about the construction of our pier!)

All told, Madison has received almost 12 inches – a full foot – more precipitation than our annual average.

It’s deja vu all over again or, to put it in the more scientific language of the Wisconsin State Climatology Office, this soggy 2019 is much like our soggy 2018, which is simply “extending a trend attributed to increased humidity and altered wind patterns associated with climate change.”

Another year, another flooded boat slip…

What we are seeing is the increasingly extreme and increasingly frequent extreme rain events that climate scientists and computer models have been predicting for years and years. So yes, this is what the process of a changing climate due to human production of greenhouse gases looks like.

But what this isn’t is the “new normal.” Yet.

As this season of climate strikes and marches and news outlets renaming “change” to “crisis” reminds us, the world’s leaders are still not doing enough to keep the planet from heading down the path of the “worst case” warming scenario.

The impact of that inertia will be felt everywhere in different ways. The global will become local.

Last week I took my youngest daughter for a walk down to a little strip of forested hillside on the shoreline of Lake Monona here in Madison. It’s a scraggly piece of city-owned land – just a strip of woods caught between the lake and the neighborhood above it – but it boasts a well-worn trail that my daughter has explored since she could walk. She’s built forts along it and picked flowers or, more often, picked up trash.

But, this time, we quickly realized something was different. The large erratic boulder left behind by the glaciers that she liked to climb on was now nearly part of the Lake Monona shoreline, not tucked back in the woods. The trunks of hackberry and walnut and invasive buckthorn trees stood in the water, their roots exposed as the soil they’d grown in was being washed away. Only a hundred yards in, the trail ended abruptly in the lake.

As far as the impacts of climate change go, I realize that this one is extremely inconsequential. Just a few feet of shoreline eroded into the water. But I couldn’t help but wonder how much further it could go. And what the cumulative impact of this wetter Wisconsin will be.

Whatever that answer, I realize that my experience isn’t unique. We’re all witnessing these changes wherever we live. Across Wisconsin and the world, our relationship with our land and water and weather is changing. About the only thing that’s certain is we shouldn’t get comfortable with the way things are.

I’ve now started thinking about it as if I’m on some sort of, to use Dreyfuss-Well’s words, “whacked-out” road trip with my daughter.

“Are we there yet?”


“Where are we going?”

“We’ll see.”