Tornados and heat waves and rain storms — oh my! The impacts of climate change on Ohio, and the MidWest

It’s not just in your head, Midwesterners — temperatures are on the rise, as are severe storms, rainfall, and other indicators that climate change and weather are intricately linked. Whether you’ve had to visit your basement for more than a few tornado warnings in recent years, or have noticed those summer temperatures pushing over 100 degrees, the signs are becoming a bit more obvious.

In addition to these weather threats, increasing temperatures are projected to also increase the risk of wildfire in Midwestern forests, and flash droughts have also increased in frequency since 1980, according to Global Change’s National Climate Assessment.

On the other hand, climate change might be a variable behind excessive flooding, along with those extreme droughts, impacting corn yields in some locations by 37%. That excessive spring moisture can delay farmers’ plans, including planting season, as they account for increasing annual rainfall, the same research shows.

Midwestern aquatic ecosystems are being harmed by rising temperatures and increased precipitation. Climate change intersects with invasive species, land-use change, and human consumption to affect nutrient pollution, water quality, and water levels,” researchers conclude.

With climate change, and rapid shifts in wet and dry conditions, come “pests and pathogens” as well. This has led to damage to crops such as apples, further impacting farmers and food production chains, also according to the same  Global Change’s National Climate Assessment.

Dr. Jana Houser, associate professor of meteorology at Ohio State University, says, “In a broad sense, we are seeing earlier springs and later first frost and freezes across the midwest, likely as a result of climate change. We are also without question seeing some of the warmest temperatures we have ever seen in recorded history, particularly over the past 20 years. For example, this past February was the second warmest February on record since 1894 the state as a whole.”

She says the correlation between climate change and severe weather is a bit more nuanced. “There is some evidence to suggest that the number of days in the year with conditions favorable for severe storms is increasing across the region. This does not necessarily translate into more severe storms, though,” she says. “In Ohio, specifically, our tornado numbers have remained relatively flat between 1990 and 2022.”

She adds that the severe weather and climate change conversation is complicated by additional factors like the local configuration of the terrain, and how storms modify local environments to the point that tornadoes are influenced by those storms, so it isn’t an easy or simple connection to make.

Jason Rech, Miami University of Ohio Professor and Chair in the Geology and Environmental Earth Science department, agrees.

Saying that one ‘weather’ event such as an outbreak of tornadoes, an intense storm, or a hurricane is the result of climate change is always difficult. Scientists look for changes in the intensity and frequency of events over time, but this can also be complicated as the methods for recording events continually change.

HIs main concern in regard to climate change is that minimum temperatures are increasing. “I think a key concern for the Midwest is the increase in extreme precipitation events. Extreme precipitation can be defined differently, but heavy rainfall events have increased. A warmer world causes a more vigorous hydrologic cycle, although increases in precipitation are not evenly distributed,” he says.

Researchers are working on predictions of what this might mean in terms of safety, food supply,  and other impacts in the near and long term future.