Lake Mendota as a Climate Indicator

It’s clear to us at Rapid Improvement Associates that our climate is changing.  Based on the evidence we’ve seen, our collective use of fossil fuels is a major driving force of climate change.

Lake Mendota open water and ice, 8 January 2012

Right here in Madison, WI, we have a sensitive indicator of climate —how long our local lakes freeze over each winter.   Starting in the 1850’s, researchers at the University of Wisconsin have measured the number of days our local lakes are frozen.   Over the last 150 years, the largest lake, Mendota, is typically frozen by mid-December.   As of January 8, 2012 Lake Mendota still had open water.

John Magnuson, Emeritus Professor of Zoology and Limnology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has an intimate knowledge of the history of Lake Mendota. He has also described our human tendency to remember only the recent past and our difficulty in understanding changes that occur in places far from home.

These seem to be two manifestations of the mental bias named by Daniel Kahneman as “What You See is All There Is” –see the “Brains at work” post on 4 January 2012.  Our brains are really challenged to deal with changes in climate, given the way we typically process information.

Nevertheless, we can use what Kahneman calls our System 2 brain to look for appropriate reference sets to help us understand the big picture.   Change in climate is a big system issue and hard for our brains to grasp.   We need all the help we can get to see the big picture and then act responsibly in light of our understanding.

Ice cover series, Lake Mendota

For example, here’s a reference graph of the length of time in days Lake Mendota was frozen that puts this winter’s late freeze over in historical context (source:  Wisconsin State Climatology Office); the vertical axis is the number of days each winter the lake is frozen.

There is a marked change from the beginning of the series in the mid-19th century to the beginning of the 21st century: winters as measured by the ice coverage are becoming shorter.   Given that Lake Mendota still was open on January 8, this year’s experience will continue the trend.

What can we do?  Of the many possibilities, using energy more intelligently in our buildings is something we can do today—we can save some money, reduce fossil fuel burning that drives atmospheric carbon, and build up our reasoning skills.  That’s why we developed Energy Stewards®.

Here’s our advice.  Look for the right reference sets in your work—for buildings, look at energy use over time and look to compare performance across similar buildings.   For climate, find an indicator that makes sense to your locale like the ice series here in Madison.  You’re likely to learn something useful and inspire meaningful action.

More information about Lake Mendota and its role as a climate sensor:

1. An accessible summary of presentation by John Magnuson from 2006 is posted here.

2. The ice data series may be found here.

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