Hoosiers love our beautiful Indiana lakes. But as the dog days of summer continue to bring steamy weather, we should think twice before diving in — both people and dogs. Earlier this month, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) issued an advisory for several lakes and waterways across the state due to potentially harmful algae blooms. These alerts have remained active for weeks, with some becoming even more serious in recent days. Health risks from blue-green algae span allergic reactions in humans to potentially death if swallowed by dogs. You can visit IDEM’s website to learn more information.
Hoosiers should be concerned — but not surprised — by these warnings. The Great Lakes region has battled algae outbreaks all summer, exacerbated by unusually high water levels. More importantly, Hoosiers should recognize these warnings are one sign that Indiana’s climate is changing — it’s getting warmer. This will increasingly affect air and water quality and the environment we humans are so comfortable in. And it’s on us to take meaningful action in response.
It was recently confirmed that July was the earth’s hottest month ever recorded. This followed the Washington Post’s dramatic analysis which found that at least 20 Indiana counties have warmed by at least 1 degree Celsius over the past century. And all of them are either in northern or northwestern Indiana.
In Elkhart County, for example, temperatures have risen by 1.4 degrees Celsius, meaning it’s just one tenth of a degree Celsius below what many scientists believe is a critical tipping point for reigning in climate change’s more severe impacts. Unfortunately, the national narrative around our changing climate is that America’s coasts are the true victims of climate change, and the Midwest is largely OK. After years of damaging spring floods during planting season, Indiana farmers know that’s not the case.
Consider the $3 billion price tag in damages from this year’s extreme floods, which delayed planting and likely decreased corn yields by as much as eight percent. The Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment projects these threats will continue, forecasting crop yield declines of up to 20% for corn and soybeans by mid-century. In the southern Midwest, maximum temperatures may even cause reproductive failure in corn crops in just 30 years. For a U.S. economy that exported more than $116.2 billion in agricultural products in 2018, this would prove catastrophic, both for Indiana farmers and for people around the world who depend on the Midwestern breadbasket for food.
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Hoosiers understand this reality because they’re paying attention and already feeling its effects. In April, an Indiana University survey found that eight out of 10 Indiana residents believe climate change is happening in some form, and 65% believe it’s worsened over the past five years. And while there’s certainly disagreement about the precise ways we should respond, consider that three out of four Hoosiers support efforts to address climate change.
This is a consensus that cuts across party lines, and agreement that we have no choice but to prepare for more flooding, more heatwaves, faster infrastructure deterioration, and greater toxicity in our waterways. At the top of our agenda should be an increased focus on resiliency — and pursuing common-sense solutions that can protect our cities and towns from worse (1.5 degree Celsius) and worst-case (2.0 degree Celsius-plus) scenarios by the end of the century.
For Indiana, this requires Midwestern pragmatism among local governments and community leaders, and a willingness to not wait for federal policymaking to save the day. For my colleagues at IU, that means collecting and presenting data about carbon reduction opportunities and climate resilience efforts in ways that are easy for community leaders to understand and act on. It means building tools that will help cities and towns measure and prioritize a response to their most urgent climate risks. And it also means that we have an opportunity to be boots-on-the-ground partners to communities across our states. And cities across the state are starting to act. This summer, 15 Indiana communities are developing community-wide greenhouse gas inventories, the first step to taking steps towards cleaner and more efficient energy use, lower electric bills, cleaner air, and greater resilience.
Connecting the dots between climate change’s immediate and long-term effects can be difficult. Yes, it effects your ability to safely swim in lakes and rivers this Labor Day weekend, but it may also lead to more than a month’s worth of days with temperatures above 95 degrees Fahrenheit in Lake County.
Please be careful in the water this summer. What’s more critical, though, is understanding and supporting the need for substantive action in response to these effects. Without our attention now, I fear what our grandchildren will see in their lakes 30 years from now.