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Four Michigan climate trends to keep watching in 2019

A graph shows annual average temperature values for the State of Michigan from 1895 through 2018. The graph varies widely from year to year but shows a general upward trend.
Kaye LaFond
Michigan Radio
Annual average temperature in Michigan has increased more than two degrees Fahrenheit since 1900.

New Year, new data. Climate change continues to affect the mitten state. Here are four places you should keep watching for it.

1. The coldest Great Lake is warming up

Lake Superior is heating up at an average of two degrees Fahrenheit per decade, making it one of the fastest warming lakes in the world. It's part of a trend: lakes in colder places are warming faster.

A graph shows summer surface temperatures for three locations on Lake Superior since 1979. The values vary from year to year, but there is a general upward trend.
Credit Kaye LaFond / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Lake Superior is one of the fastest warming lakes in the world.

Jay Austin is a professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth's Large Lakes Observatory, and he sent us an up-to-date time series of summer surface temperatures on the lake. 2017 and 2018 were fairly "normal" years, but Austin said 2019 could be another warm summer.

"Right now, we are on track for an abnormally warm winter, which will mean lower ice coverage in winter 2019 and likely a warmer summer 2019," he told us in an e-mail.

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Warmer water impacts almost everything that happens in Lake Superior.

"Temperature and ice cover are major drivers of not just ecosystems, but have real cultural, recreational, and commercial impacts as well," Austin said. "My major concern is that a warmer Lake Superior is going to be more hospitable to invasive species."

Scientists also believe recent unprecedented cyanobacterial blooms on the lake are tied in part to warmer temperatures.

2. Spreading Lyme disease risk

Black-legged ticks, the kind that carry Lyme disease, weren't recorded in the Lower Peninsula until the early 2000s. Scientists theorize that mass deforestation in Michigan in the late 1800s removed the ticks' habitat, and they were only able to re-emerge after the return of the forests. They've been spreading ever since. 

Credit Michigan Department of Health and Human Services
This map, created by the State of Michigan, shows Lyme Disease risk by county in 2018. Lyme disease risk has been expanding in the state.

Climate change could provide an advantage for the ticks by making winters less harsh.

"One of the ways that ticks can die or fall off is in the winter, in the overwintering," says Erik Foster, Medical Entomologist with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. "We have the theory that, as climate change continues, it will just be more favorable for these ticks."

The most up-to-date information on Lyme disease risk in Michigan can be found here.

3. More intense rain and flooding

In 2018, we reported on catastrophic flooding that hit Houghton County in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and on how climate change is expected to make intense rainstorms more frequent

Jeff Andresen is Michigan's state climatologist and a professor at Michigan State University. He says increases in rain and flooding pose the greatest climate change-related threat to Michigan's economy. 

A graph shows rainfall duration and intensity probabilities, overlaid with data from June 17th, 2018.
Credit Kaye LaFond / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The rainfall between midnight and 6 AM at the Houghton County Airport on June 17th, 2018, was so heavy that it only had a 1 in 1,000 chance of occurring.

"It's fairly clear that economically, our greatest single weather-related problem or challenge here in our part of the world [is] heavy rain events and flooding. That stands above everything else, and those types of events, unfortunately, are increasing over time."

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4. Longer growing seasons

Andresen says that warming in Michigan has lengthened the growing season, weighted more toward an earlier spring.

"The last freezing temperatures of the spring season are becoming earlier, and the first freezing temperatures of the fall are getting a little bit later," he says. "Our frost-free growing season has increased in most parts of Michigan [by] about a week and a half, just in the last 40 years."

It's not certain a longer growing season will be a net positive for farmers; warmer temps could also increase the types and abundance of pests. 

*Correction: An earlier version of this story had a mislabeled graph of annual average temperatures in the State of Michigan. The y-axis was labeled as temperatures in degrees Celsius. That was incorrect. The graph has been updated to reflect that the temperatures are given in degrees Fahrenheit. 

Kaye is an alumnus of Michigan Tech's environmental engineering program. She got her start making maps for the Traverse City-Based water news organization Circle of Blue, and, since then, she's been pretty devoted to science communication and data visualization.
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