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Five takeaways for Ohio from the National Climate Assessment

A river with a suspension bridge over it and a city skyline in the distance, with bare trees in the foreground.
Seyma Bayram
Water systems like the Ohio River, pictured here, and Lake Erie will bear the brunt of climate change in Ohio.

The National Climate Assessment is a research-based, federal report on climate change and its impacts, risks and responses across the country. The assessment is the culmination of years of work by nearly 500 authors and 250 contributors. Their analysis of national and international data paints a picture of what climate change will look and feel like over time. The report breaks down that picture region by region.

“We're trying to look at not the data for the whole world, like sometimes would be reported, but what's the data for the U.S. and what's really the data for like the Ohio Valley, the Great Lakes, the state of Ohio?” co-author and NOAA Service Coordination Hydrologist Jim Noel said. “So, we're taking all of these computer models and scenarios of different outcomes and projections, and we're trying to boil it down to potential impacts.”

The fifth National Climate Assessment, published this month, predicts climate change will be felt acutely in Ohio’s temperatures and water systems: from fluctuating precipitation’s effect on the cargo and agricultural industries to changes in water quality to a disproportionate impact on under-served communities.

Changes to rainfall patterns

The assessment predicts the Midwest will experience both periods of increased, heavy rainfall and flash droughts.

As the planet gets warmer due to climate change, precipitation can increase by 2-3% per degree of warming, according to the PBS Weatherd series. A warmer climate means a warmer atmosphere that is able to both absorb more water, creating periods of drought and dry conditions, and expel more water leading to heavy rain events and flooding.

Annual precipitation increased between 5% and 15% across the Midwest from 1992 to 2021, according to the assessment, and scientists expect more frequent fluctuations between wet and dry conditions are expected for the region as a whole.

“For example, like this year, we basically had the month of May with almost no rain across almost the entire state of Ohio. There [were] some pockets, but it was very dry,” Noel said. “That's that intensity that we're talking about. And we're seeing it in the trends and we're seeing it in the projections.”

This could lead to fluctuating water levels in Lake Erie which can slow down our water-based shipping channels, Noel said. That could lead to a trickle-down effect on the region's economy.

“If you get low water years, it can slow down the international cargo ships moving through this system,” he said. “It's the old saying: … if you change something, you're going to have downstream consequences.”

Fluctuating precipitation is expected to impact the agriculture industry statewide. Noel said even slight changes in temperature, precipitation and wind patterns can put stress on crops and affect yield.

In the last 20 years, the autumn harvest season has been challenged because you have to be able to get in the fields,” Noel said. “When fields get muddier during what should be a drier time of the year – normally our rainfall pattern from mid-September through mid-November is usually set on the driest part of the year – that's also when we're harvesting crops.

Warmer weather

The National Climate Assessment predicts warmer winters with fewer and less intense snow storms. These temperature changes would impact recreation that depends on snowy conditions, said Aaron Wilson, state climatologist and Midwest chapter lead.

“Thinking about Geauga County and Chardon and other areas that have historically [had that] Lake Erie effect. [There’s] cultural ties to that and historical ties to that,” he said.

On the flip side, Ohio summers will be hotter too. Just this summer, areas such as the Miami Valley experienced a surge in heat advisories, and cooling centers opened up across the state as a resource for those looking to beat the extreme heat.

Increased heat can lead to issues such as upper respiratory effects, hospitalization and even death, the assessment states.

Warmer weather in nearby areas can also come with trickle down effects. Back in June, the air quality index hit over 200 in the Dayton region due to Canadian wildfire smoke – a rating deeming the air unsafe for everybody.

“This was something we had decided to put in our chapter long before this last summer spell. We're being impacted by things that are taking place in what we might think are distant locations. But that just shows the connectedness of climate change across the landscape,” said Wilson. 

Increased temperatures, coupled with the periodic dry spells, are projected to increase the risk of wildfires in the Midwest which would risk bringing that wildfire smoke and worsened air quality closer to home.

Inequitable effects of climate change

Climate change doesn’t affect all people equally, according to the report. Low-income communities and communities of color tend to be at higher risk of the impacts of climate change due to things like systemic discrimination and underinvestment in those communities.

“Climate [change] is a threat multiplier. It exacerbates current conditions, whether it be economic, socioeconomic, political,” said Wilson. “All of these things can be made a little bit more difficult to resolve.”

The effects of those warmer, fluctuating wet and dry conditions predicted in Ohio, tend to be amplified in low-income communities and communities of color that tend to lack things like effective infrastructure and greenspace to prevent things like flooding and warmer temperatures.

Urban areas such as Dayton, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus have the potential to become heat islands, a term used to describe communities that experience hotter temperatures than surrounding neighborhoods.

According to the report, communities like these could become as much as 12 degrees hotter during a heatwave than nearby, wealthier communities because of those inequities.

One of the things that we've learned is that the [greatest] impact to humans is nighttime low temperatures above 80 degrees,” said Noel. “That's very impactful, especially if you don't have air conditioning.

Disrupted ecosystems and worsened water quality

Climate change is playing a role in the harm of ecosystems and a loss of biodiversity.

Warmer temperatures alone cause species to relocate or disappear altogether, according to the report, and along the Great Lakes, warmer waters and changes in ice cover can lead to more frequent invasive species that can decrease water quality and create more toxins.

An increase in heavy rain means more stormwater runoff that can pickup fertilizers, trash and other pollutants that can end up in the Ohio River, Lake Erie and other bodies of water.

It's that runoff that contributes to harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie as well. This summer, blooms were found in Caesar’s Creek and the C.J. Brown Reservoir in the southwest part of the state.

“Extreme runoff events put a wide range of things into our water system that then, with a combination of sunshine and warm temperatures, allow those kinds of things to grow,” said Noel.

Algal blooms pose a risk to waterways and could potentially affect the quality of the water coming from aquifers. It may not be safe to swim in those water bodies and can make the consumption of freshwater dangerous if contamination levels become too high.

More rain and flooding could also lead to more standing water, Noel said. When coupled with the milder winters the region might see an increase in ticks and mosquitos, along with a spike in illnesses like Lyme disease and mosquito-borne illnesses such as West Nile Virus and yellow fever.

Where to go from here

The report opens by emphasizing the importance of actions taken today to help mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.

It highlighted a success story in Ashtabula where a wetland restoration helped to bring back habitat that was displaced by industrial development on the lakefront, while reviving recreational and tourist opportunities to the area.

The state’s H2Ohio initiative is leading efforts across the state to restore and maintain safe and healthy waterways across the state.

Though there are other success stories across the country highlighted in the report, Wilson said no one project is enough to fix the problem.

“There's no one silver bullet that can really build resilience, whether it's in water, agriculture or health,” said “There's not a single engagement [with this report] that I think will suffice.

Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.
Adriana Martinez-Smiley (she/they) is the Environment and Indigenous Affairs Reporter for WYSO.