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Climate change is happening, scientists say. What does that mean for Kansas weather going forward?

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one of a three in a multipart series from the Olathe Reporter on climate change, its local impacts on health and steps area leaders are taking to address it on a regional scale. You can find the other installments of this series linked in the body of the story you’re currently reading. 

During the summer months, Olathe was under multiple heat advisories spanning several days. On top of that, last month the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the summer of 2021 one of the hottest on record, surpassing the heat levels recorded during the Dust Bowl in 1936. 

Although it’s difficult to say how weather changes and the increasing frequency of more extreme climate events are connected to climate change and a warming world, Nathaniel Brunsell, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Kansas, it’s certain they are related. 

One way to illustrate that is through flooding. Across the U.S. and around the world, flooding has become a growing threat to cities and communities, threatening long-standing neighborhoods. 

“We would have flooding, even if humans had no impact on the planet, right, we would still have storms and fires and there'd be tornadoes and hurricanes. The problem with attribution of any given storm is that storm might have existed before,” Brunsell told the Olathe Reporter. “So when we start seeing people doing these studies and they look at ‘How likely are these storms to occur? How often do storms of certain magnitudes occur?’ You can say ‘Oh, well this kind of storm only happens once in 1000 years.’ And then you say, ‘Well, we've had 10 of these 1000-year events in the last 10 years.’ Then you start saying ‘Ok, well probably something is going on.’” 

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In that regard, the issue isn’t about whether a weather event is linked to climate change, but whether the severity of an event has escalated in intensity because of a warming planet. 

“We’re clearly getting to the point where we can say a lot of these storms, if not most of these changes that we're seeing, have been at least impacted by global warming,” he said. 

WHAT DOES WARMING WEATHER MEAN FOR KANSAS? 

The extra heat days Johnson County and surrounding communities saw this summer, Brunsell said, are “​​consistent with climate change.” Sanmi Areola, the director of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, agreed. 

“Although direct causation at the local level is difficult to determine, the trends are following what’s been expected with a global rise in temperature,” he said via email. 

Some research Brunsell has done in KU’s department of geography and atmospheric science has looked specifically at climate models from the past and compared them to more recent climate models, identifying how the weather patterns in Kansas are changing. When the data is compared, it shows most of Kansas becoming warmer without an increase in average precipitation. As the weather becomes warmer, more water is necessary to grow crops because of increasing evaporation, which might not be available. 

“Take whatever weather you have now and think about it being about two counties to the west, [that] is about what we'll be seeing in 50 years,” he said. “It's drier and a little bit warmer.” 

And though it might seem a warmer world would be better, it’s not, Brunsell says. A generally warmer planet means the extremes — including winter weather extremes — will be more severe and occur more frequently. 

“You're gonna have this background two-degree warming,” he said, “but it's going to be much warmer things happening and much colder things happening kind of swaying back and forth and being much more difficult to adapt to.” 

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There’s also a chance some parts of the state, particularly in the southeast, might be getting wetter, which poses other problems, said Kevin Kennedy, an environmental health scientist and the director of the Environmental Health Program at Children’s Mercy Hospital.

‘THE DEBATE IS OVER’ 

Climate scientists around the world generally agree “the debate is over” about climate change, Brunsell said

“It is kind of unequivocal,” he said. “Whether or not it's happening, and really whether or not humans have caused it is also over. That debate is not really worth having.” 

The debate people should be having, Brunsell said, is how to deal with reality. That could be creating more resilient developments, raising cities above sea level to combat flooding or other infrastructure-based solutions. 

“How we want to do that is very much a discussion that we have in public,” he said. 

Kennedy seconded this. 

“We've really gotten beyond any kind of debate about why it's happening or did humans cause it or not — it really doesn't matter,” he said. “The point is it is happening, the evidence is very clear and what are we going to do about it.” 

Though having a smaller home, using less energy and making small, personal changes to your lifestyle do reduce your carbon footprint, Brunsell said the time for individual action is kind of over. 

“Probably the better thing to do is write letters, get involved with the state senators and representatives and try to get them to push action at much larger [degrees],” he said. “That's where we're seeing real action that can actually influence these issues.”

That can be difficult, Kennedy says, because the people who have the power to make the change don’t feel the “pressure” of climate change as acutely as other individuals. 

“We're going to have more fires, we're going to have more floods, we're gonna see more frequent thunderstorms and other events,” he said, “how do you respond not just to the disaster and the immediate response but the long-term recovery?”

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