“Our America: Climate of Hope” – In Conversation with ABC7 Chicago Meteorologists Cheryl Scott & Larry Mowry

From "Our America: Climate of Hope" (Credit: ABC Owned Television Stations)
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Earlier this week, I was made aware of (and had the opportunity to watch) a brand-new must-see documentary, Our America: Climate of Hope, co-produced by ABC Localish Studios and National Geographic, an hour-long examination of the impacts of climate change, some potential solutions, and more. Recently, I had the chance to speak with ABC7 Chicago meteorologists Cheryl Scott and Larry Mowry regarding some of the impacts that we’ve seen locally and regionally, the health of the Great Lakes, and the effect of all of that ice melting in the Arctic. Read on to see what they had to say, and be sure to check out the documentary (now streaming on Hulu, ABC Television Owned Stations’ Connected TV Apps, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, and Roku).

Cheryl Scott / From “Our America: Climate of Hope” (Credit: ABC Owned Television Stations)

Andrew DeCanniere: First and foremost, I think that there can be a certain sense of security, being in the middle of the country as we are. We’re not on the west coast, where there seem to be a lot of the wildfires and those sorts of issues. We’re not on the east coast — especially the southeast and along the Gulf Coast — where you have a lot of the hurricanes. So, I think that being more inland, some people might not be quite as focused on the effects of climate change. So, to begin, I was wondering whether you could touch on the effects we have seen here in the Chicagoland area, as well as in the midwest region in general. 

Larry Mowry: There’s a lot there, and you’re exactly right that oftentimes in the middle of the country, we haven’t experienced some of the extremes that they’ve seen on the coasts, but our climate is changing here in the midwest. The projection is that Chicago will be more like central and southern Missouri in about 50 years. Even though our climate will probably not have the extremes like the coasts and the desert southwest, we will still notice a change in the climate. I think it’s really interesting that you bring this up, because just a couple of weeks ago I saw Duluth, Minnesota is kind of advertising themselves as the climate refuge city. I think the Great Lakes is, in some regards, positioned better than other places around the world, because of our enormous lakes of freshwater. However, there are still going to be impacts, especially for those communities that aren’t able to adapt to the changes. I know that Cheryl and I have talked a lot about this. It’s those disadvantaged communities that are going to be hardest hit by the changing climate, because they aren’t as able to adapt as some other communities. Right, Cheryl?

Cheryl Scott: One hundred percent. He just hit all those points and facts, and we may not be as at high-risk from some of the things that will be happening with climate change. I was watching one of the specials that ABC did, and they are saying that potentially by 2100, I think it was over 13 million people could be impacted by sea level rise, and will literally have to move away from the coasts. Sea level rise has risen about eight to nine inches since 1880. We don’t talk about those types of extremes here. We’re a little bit far removed, but once something happens to a community — once you experience a severe weather event — I think that kind of turns on the lightbulb in your head, and you’re like “Oh. This is something that I’ve never gone through before, and I’ve never experienced.” Take for instance the derecho of 2020. That was a huge event that impacted Chicago and the midwest. That was a million to billion dollar weather disaster that impacted the country, and it hit here. Then, take a look at our lake levels. Our lake levels have been up and down. This is something that, if you live in Chicago, you are witnessing. Some of those effects from climate change are driving those lake levels, because we’ve seen such an increase in precipitation over the past couple of years. All of that water has to go somewhere. So, that really impacts what we’re seeing from where we stand in the Chicago area. Lake levels rose over five-and-a-half feet in just seven years, to all time record highs. Shoreline erosion is clearly happening, causing millions of dollars in damage to our prized shoreline. So, we are seeing the impacts here. Again, we’re not as high-risk as the coasts, or areas that will be hit by those extreme wildfires, but we’re going to start to see these changes. I think it’s all going to start adding up. People are going to realize it more and more as we go into the coming years.

Larry Mowry (WLS-TV Chicago)

Mowry: I think that, to add to that, there are two things that have happened to our climate in Chicago that have been documented as being the case. First off, an increase in precipitation. We’ve seen about a five inch increase in precipitation since the turn of the twentieth century. That increase hasn’t been in general light rain events, but it’s been in significant heavy rainfall events. The analogy to use is that the thunderstorms now are producing heavier rain than they did 75 to 100 years ago, because there’s more moisture in the atmosphere because of global warming. When you warm the planet, you evaporate more water, and you put more water into the atmosphere. That’s fueling more intense rainfall events for us here in the midwest. That’s not the case everywhere on the planet, because there are some places that are not seeing those heavy rainfall events, but are seeing more drought conditions. What we’ve seen in the midwest, and in the Chicago area, is those higher rainfall events. The other thing we’ve seen as well is an increase in temperatures over the past one-hundred years. What’s really interesting about this is that those increases in temperatures have been more so in the overnight lows, and not so much in the daytime highs. A lot of the time, when we think about climate change and global warming, you think about extreme heat in the summer. Well, we’ve had hot summers. In fact, last summer was the hottest on record, but we didn’t have triple-digit heat last summer. The increase came in those overnight lows, where those temperatures were warmer at night than during the day. Sometimes that’s unnoticeable, because you’re out and about during the day, and in the middle of the night you don’t notice temperatures being warmer than they have been in the past. 

DeCanniere: I think that you both touched upon a lot of important aspects right there. I mean there are so many changes that are occurring, both locally and regionally. Lake level, as you’ve mentioned, is definitely one thing that comes to mind. I feel like one really good example is the lakefront path in Chicago. It was just torn up by the waves, and it happened not all that long ago. Here’s this path that so many people use on a daily basis, and so that is just one very specific, highly visible, example that I can think of, in terms of the damage that can occur. It seems like it’s a very good example of erosion.

Scott: Absolutely, and these are our recreational areas that were just taken away from us during the spring and summer of last year. There was that video that went viral — a video of lake water pouring over the lakefront path and one of the bikers getting wiped out. It’s dangerous, but it’s also causing millions of dollars of damage. Even across the other side of the lake, we’re just seeing the loss of entire homes and properties as well. The Army Corps of Engineers in this area had to look outside to see what other areas are doing to become more resilient to these types of events. How do you keep up with water levels that are rising, and that are causing total destruction of our shoreline? They’ve actually implemented new ways to deal with that. They put out these sandbags, which weigh thousands of pounds. This is something new that they had to do. They had to bring it to the Chicago area to keep up with the rising water levels.

DeCanniere: Right. Just this morning, turned on the news, and I saw Ginger Zee’s report on Good Morning America. She was talking about the coastal erosion that is occurring in Michigan, and about how her parents bought a house and now it seems as though its fate is in question. 

Mowry: I saw that report from Ginger, too, and it speaks to the fact that there are going to be some areas that can adapt to those changes in the lake levels, and there are going to be others that are not going to be able to as well. The unfortunate thing is that there are going to be a lot of people impacted by climate change — more so than what we’ve seen recently. 

Scott: And another factor here, when we’re talking about Lake Michigan, are water temperatures. Water temperatures in Lake Michigan have gone up by two to three degrees fahrenheit just since 1980. That’s indicative of our changing air temperature. Not only are we seeing this changing air temperature on the surface level, but a new study just came out by NOAA. Deep down — hundreds of meters down in Lake Michigan — water temperature is also rising. They were not expecting to see this type of change. You can think of the bottom of Lake Michigan — that cold water — almost as a refuge from climate change. That’s not the case. So, that’s something new that just came out recently as well, and that’s another sign of our changing climate.

Mowry: That was such an interesting study, because the way the water ecosystem operates is that once you go down to a certain level, it’s usually a pretty constant temperature from there down to the bottom of the lake. That study found that even in the lowest portion of the lake, it’s warming a few degrees. As Cheryl said, it was believed that part of the lake wouldn’t change, despite the top getting warmer. However, it’s all connected, and so they found that it is warming, even down there at the lower levels.

From “Our America: Climate of Hope” (Credit: ABC Owned Television Stations)

DeCanniere: Speaking of Lake Michigan, I know that you also wanted to talk a bit about the health of the lakes overall. What is the state of things where the health of Lake Michigan is concerned overall?

Scott: There’s so much going on there. I think that warming waters will have a profound effect on the biodiversity across all of the Great Lakes — even here in Chicago. Lake Michigan, especially. Scientists and experts are saying that because the waters are warming, we’re going to find a habitat changing. These animals and plants that can thrive more easily in warmer waters are going to be the winners in this situation, and we’re going to start to see a decline in species that are adapted to cold water. We have to remember how Lake Michigan formed, too — from glaciers. This should be a cold body of water, and we’re seeing that change before our eyes. So, there will definitely be profound effects on the ecology of our lakes. 

Mowry: There’s a great book that I encourage everybody to read called The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan. He was a reporter up in Milwaukee, and he covered the Great Lakes for years, and then he wrote a book about his experiences. Ever since shipping from the Atlantic Ocean came into the Great Lakes, the whole ecosystem has just been pretty much devastated and changed over the past 50 to 75 years, because of the invasive species that have invaded the Great Lakes — from alewives to the mussels that are there now. In a changing climate, there are going to be species that thrive, and other species that decline, and that has been the Great Lakes for decades now. From the great alewife die off in Chicago — I believe it was in the 1960s. They littered the beach and just ruined the summer here in Chicago because of the dead carcasses of fish along the lake. That was an invasive species. To be frank, the ecosystem and the environment of the Great Lakes has been a mess for a long time. As climate changes, it’s going to evolve and change as well.

Larry Mowry (WLS-TV Chicago)

Scott: There was another special that we did about the Great Lakes, and it was all about invasive species. We talked about the Quagga mussels, as Larry just mentioned, and how they were brought over. They are completely disrupting the ecosystem, and they have been for years. One thing that’s really interesting about these mussels is that they basically extract a lot of food and nutrients from the water. They’re actually cleaning our water, which you would think is a good thing. So, when you go out on a boat on Lake Michigan, and you’re wondering why the water looks so blue, a lot of that can be attributed to the Quagga mussels, because of the processes that they go under in the water. That’s not necessarily a good thing, because they’re taking food away from other animals and plants that are living in Lake Michigan. That has been a huge problem. I do have to say that a lot of scientists know about this and they’re working on this, and new practices are being implemented, and they’re actually finding solutions — literally a solution — to put at the bottom of Lake Michigan to deal with the Quagga mussels where they’ve really taken over the bottom of the Great Lakes. I’ve talked to a lot of scientists, and they have said it’s hard to go to the bottom of Lake Michigan and find a spot that is not covered with these mussels. So, it is a huge issue. We’re trying to find ways to deal with that, but it’s just a sign and a trend almost. If an invasive species takes over, it’s almost game over at a certain point. Take the Asian carp, for example. If they were to get into the Great Lakes, the way that they have multiplied in our rivers and our streams outside of Lake Michigan, across the midwest and down to the deep south — including the Mississippi — it would change the entire lake’s ecology. I know scientists are working on this, and they’re spending millions and millions of dollars on infrastructure to keep Asian carp and invasive species out of Lake Michigan. 

Another thing that is impacting the Great Lakes is fertilizer runoff. Larry did a story on farming here, and how our growing season is getting longer because our temperatures are rising and we’re seeing plentiful precipitation. It’s variable from season to season, but agricultural runoff is another big pollutant that’s impacting the Great Lakes. In Toledo, a few years ago, they had to shut off their drinking water completely, because of toxic algal blooms from fertilizer runoff from farms. That is a huge issue here in the midwest. When you think about water, the midwest and agriculture, it is hand-in-hand and all intertwined. There’s so much being done to try to prevent this fertilizer runoff — this nutrient runoff — from going into our waters. This is our drinking water. One of the big things that has been implemented is the planting of cover crops on farms across the midwest. I know Larry has just done a huge story on all of this.

Mowry: Lake Michigan is kind of insulated from that, because obviously when it comes to the farms in Illinois, the water goes to the Mississippi and not into Lake Michigan. So, we don’t have that big of a problem with Lake Michigan and the runoff. It’s certainly a huge problem for Lake Erie. The whole thing is getting people to buy into measures that are adapting the land to take carbon out of the atmosphere, to increase yield of their crops by producing cover crops. No-till farming is another practice that has really caught on in the past couple of decades. All of these things are good for the environment, but they’re also good for agriculture. People always think of climate change as “Oh, I need to change my ways to the detriment of myself.” While, in many regards, the changes that people can make are going to save you money, be better for the environment, and just overall sometimes can make your life a little bit better. It’s all in how you see things, and I think that’s what a lot of people have tried to wrap their head around in the past decade. “What can I do to make a difference, when my difference is going to be so small in the greater scheme of things?” 

Cheryl Scott (Credit: WLS-TV Chicago)

DeCanniere: We hear a lot about ice melting in the Arctic and other severe effects in these places that are seemingly farther away. However, I feel as though these changes can have significant impacts here, too. So, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about what effects that can have. Second, I also think that not too many people think about feedback loops, and consequently can behave as though the moment our behavior changes, climate change will stop on a dime. So, I was wondering if you could perhaps get into that as well.

Scott: The melting ice is definitely one of the things that people talk about all of the time and, of course, sea level rise. We’re seeing impacts here, locally, from that. As the Arctic continues to lose ice, you’re talking about a positive feedback loop. What happens there is that ice acts as what we, in meteorological terms, call an “Albedo effect.” So, the higher the number the Albedo, the more sun it can reflect. Ice has a very high reflectivity value. When we lose that ice, we’re losing that ability to reflect that heat and that sunlight back up and out into space. We’re retaining that heat, we’re absorbing it, and the waters are warming, and so is our atmosphere. So, that’s that positive feedback loop. We’re losing that Arctic ice and we’re warming that air. What Larry and I focus on a lot is weather — and how this changes our weather patterns. That has a huge impact on the polar jet stream, and it actually weakens it. As that polar jet stream is weakened, a lot of that cold air that’s locked up in the Arctic has a better ability to surge farther to the south. That’s what you hear us talking about on-the-air in terms of the polar vortex. That is that cold pocket of air aloft in the Arctic that has always been there, but we’re seeing this happen a little bit more frequently over the past couple of years. So, we are seeing effects. As our globe warms, I think it’s important to note that we will continue to see extreme weather on each end of the spectrum. It’s getting warmer here. We have seen our temperatures rise in Chicago by almost one to two degrees celsius per decade, and that looks to be the trend. So much so that by the year 2070, our temperatures could potentially be eight to ten degrees warmer. That’s a huge impact. Three of the last ten years have been our warmest on record. Summer of 2020 was our warmest on record, but we’re still seeing extreme cold here. I think it is, in terms of a global scale or regional scale, going to get noisier. As the globe continues to warm, we’re still going to see cold blasts of air, but as the Arctic continues to warm — Larry and I talked a lot about this as well — that air won’t be as cold as it moves in to the midwest. So, the polar vortex that we talk about, in 10 to 20 years from now, we may not see record cold like we did a few years ago. It is all intertwined. 

Mowry: Speaking of feedback, that also applies to drought — especially like we’ve seen out west. Drought begets more drought, because you dry out the land, there is less moisture being evaporated from the ground to potentially lead to some rain, so you have that working against you. Usually, the weather pattern is such where you don’t have rain coming in through storm systems. So, you have a feedback there of drought begetting more drought, and getting worse and worse and worse. The old saying really holds true. You need a flood to break a drought. That’s how most droughts get broken — by a big-time rain event. There’s also something called “compounded events” in climate change, where you go from one extreme to another really quickly. The derecho that we had last year was kind of an example of that, because in Iowa they were in drought conditions, and then they had this extreme weather event — with heavy rain and, obviously, the high winds — which was a compounding event from the drought to the extreme wind event with the derecho. All this is tied together. The world is connected. Everything is tied together. It’s so fascinating as a meteorologist to look at what’s happening and understand what’s happening, and how amazing and beautiful our planet is, because the earth is always trying to find balance. That’s the reason we have weather, because the sun heats the earth differently because we’re on a tilted axis. Just because we’re tilted, we get weather. If the earth were not tilted, we would have the same weather everyday. It’s a crazy thing just how amazing our planet is. 

DeCanniere: The more you look at it, and the more you really examine how interconnected we all really are, and the ways in which what we do here could impact others — and, by the same token, how what others do elsewhere could impact us here — I think that it hopefully really makes people stop and think, and makes them consider their own impact on the planet. With any luck, everyone will change the behaviors that are working against the planet and, thus, against us.

Scott: And that’s why we encourage everyone to watch our special on Hulu, Our America: Climate of Hope, because we talk about ways people can actually help make a difference, because climate change and global warming can be so overwhelming for so many.

Our America: Climate of Hope is now streaming on Hulu. You can also stream the documentary by downloading the following ABC Owned Television Stations’ Connected TV Apps: ABC7/WABC-TV New York, ABC7/KABC-TV Los Angeles, ABC7/WLS-TV Chicago, 6ABC/WPVI-TV Philadelphia, ABC7/KGO-TV San Francisco, ABC13/KTRK-TV Houston, ABC11/WTVD-TV Raleigh-Durham and ABC30/KFSN-TV Fresno and on streaming platforms Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, and Roku.