NIU Experts Say Climate Change Effects Will Intensify Without Major Shift In Economy

Oct 15, 2020

The effects of climate change are becoming more and more apparent. Experts suggest there is a narrow window in which to act before they get worse.

Ross Powell is a professor emeritus of sedimentology and climate change at Northern Illinois University
Credit Northern Illinois University

Various weather events have highlighted the effects of climate change in the public eye. These include wildfires, hurricanes, and heavy rain. Ross Powell is a professor emeritus of sedimentology and climate change at Northern Illinois University. He’s noticed significant ice loss during his research in the Arctic. He said the U.S. could quickly heat up if nothing is done to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

“By the turn of the century, 2100 or so, Illinois’ climate could be something like North Texas or South Carolina today.” 

This would mean 20 to 60 days of summer hotter than a hundred degrees Fahrenheit.  Powell said warmer days could be particularly dangerous to those living in urban “heat islands.” And fiercer weather events could strain the ecosystem.

“Some of the wetlands and prairies can obviously help in terms of stopping soil erosion and runoff drainage into our river systems, so increasing that sort of habitat can help us," he said. "But depending on how fast the climate changes, the natural woodlands and plants may not be able to adapt fast enough.” 

More Intense weather could also pose a risk to agriculture.

“The corn and soybean crops have projected maximum temperatures in the hundred-degree range," Powell said. 

From 2016 to 2019, Illinois had its wettest May rainfalls on record. This year’s weather has been a bit different. Mark Tuttle, President of the DeKalb County Farm Bureau, explained.

Mark Tuttle is president of the DeKalb County Farm Bureau
Credit DeKalb County Farm Bureau

“All of a sudden, on the 4th of July, we had a few rains, and then the rains turned off," he said, "so we experienced an extreme, extreme dry period from around the middle of July to just after Labor Day, when we received some rains.” 

During August, the area was hit by a derecho storm system. While the damage wasn’t severe in northern Illinois, Tuttle said nearby Iowa farmers lost much of their grain storage.

“Grain storage is not cheap, and a lot of insurance companies are going to have to kick in, if it was insured, to help pay for that.”

Tuttle said it’s unclear whether that specific event can be directly tied to climate change.

“This Derecho even that came through is a very rare event and it was one of the strongest on record," he said. "But we also were coming off of a very, very calm period in the atmosphere, and all of a sudden we were changing the atmosphere around, and so this wind event developed. I think there’s something we’re gong to have to study for several years why that happened.” 

But Professor Powell said an increased frequency of natural disasters would have a significant impact. 

“So the cost of natural disasters occurring elsewhere actually influences people’s tax dollars in Illinois because we’re having to cover the costs of recovery.” 

As the climate warms, people will need to use more electricity for cooling. That could create even more climate-changing emissions. Powell says to avoid that the energy economy would need to move away from fossil fuels.

“[The energy economy] really requires us and dramatically shows that we need to be changing our energy structure to things like wind resources and solar and so on to mitigate the production of greenhouse gases.” 

Kevin Martin is an associate professor at NIU and faculty associate for the Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability and Energy.
Credit Northern Illinois University

Professor Kevin Martin is part of the Institute for The Study of the Environment, Sustainability and Energy at NIU. He said the biggest greenhouse gas emitters are power generation and transportation.

“We certainly need to look at more and more electric vehicles and then we also need to back that up with more renewable generation, so the whole well-to-wheel emission is dramatically reduced.” 

Last year, Illinois was ranked the sixth in the nation for installed wind capacity, more than 5,000 megawatts. Martin said there are also transportation policies in the works.

"And the governor recently in August actually released a plan where he’s targeting to have 750,000 electric vehicles in Illinois by 2030."

This would require adjustments to transportation infrastructure.

“For a vast majority of trips, you don’t drive more than 40 miles a day. And so, by doing that ability, you can look at very much localized energy charging networks, certainly along the Interstate systems," Martin said. 

He said this can be done by directly generating electricity or using the power to create another fuel via electrolysis.

“And from that process you’ll be able to split that water molecule part into hydrogen and oxygen, collect the hydrogen and use that in a fuel cell, which takes oxygen from the air, and in the process, creates water vapor again.” 

Martin added that "going green" also has economic benefits.

“By investing in energy efficiency programs, by investing in renewable energy systems and having competitive power pricing, companies come to those states and then they set up shop and more jobs and more tax dollars.” 

Even so, experts like Powell say it’s important to make the switch soon -- before it’s too late to counteract the effects of global climate change.