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Mark Bennett: Terre Haute's climate may feel like Arkansas by 2080

·5 min read

Sep. 25—Searcy, Arkansas, probably serves as a decent place to live.

A total of 23,660 people call it home. Searcy's a college town. Harding University, Arkansas' largest private college, produced 1940s and '50s big-league pitcher Preacher Roe, "Duck Dynasty" star Willie Robertson and Bill Clinton-era special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. Astute Civil War buffs will recognize Searcy as the site of the Battle of Whitney's Lane in 1862. The city sits along the Little Red River in central Arkansas, and an angler named Rip Collins landed a then-world-record 40-pound trout in that stream back in 1992.

Searcy sports the motto, "The city where thousands live as millions wish they could."

For young Terre Hauteans, that wish could come more true than they suspect.

As a result of climate change, Terre Haute's climate in the year 2080 will most closely resemble the present-day climate of Searcy, Arkansas. A study by ecologists Matt Fitzpatrick of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and Robert Dunn of North Carolina State University in 2019 calculated the effects of climate change on 540 cities around the country through the next 60 years. They then found the closest matching present-day city, climate-wise, to those 2080 climates. The average city's 2080 sister city was 528 miles away, typically to the south, according to a Popular Science story.

The scientists tried to put climate change in relatable terms. As Fitzpatrick explained in a phone interview Thursday, he recalled reading news reports about the projected 2-degree increase in mean global temperatures and wondered if that seemed too abstract. "People will go, 'Two degrees? What's the big deal?'" he said. The changes lead to more than a few more drops of sweat, though.

The consequences of the changing climate are filling the news right now. The fires that have raged out West, and the hurricanes pelting the nation's coasts show those regions "are already near a tipping point," Fitzpatrick said. Also capturing headlines are steps to respond to the dilemma, from international alliances discussed at the United Nations General Assembly this week, to a group of Lafayette students prompting a state legislator to plan a bill to implement climate-change mitigation policies, to late night TV talk show hosts teaming up to devote their programs Wednesday to climate change and the pressing need to reduce carbon emissions.

A NASA study released earlier this year used satellite technology to study the causes of climate change, and affirmed the realities of years of scientific research — that greenhouse gases and pollution particles from fossil fuel burning is the primary reason for the warming planet.

The impact of that seems clearer to see in places like California, Washington state, Montana and Oregon, where wildfires are scorching hundreds of thousands of acres, or in Louisiana, Texas, Florida or the Northeast, where more intense and rapidly forming hurricanes and tropical storms cause flooding and wind damage.

That's what's so helpful about the study by Fitzpatrick and Dunn, with their interactive map. Its connection between Terre Haute in 2021 and Searcy, Arkansas, in 2080 hit home.

In 2080, my grandchildren will be close to the age I am now. If they choose to stay in the Terre Haute area, they'll experience far different summers, autumns, winters and springs than I've come to love here.

If climate change continues on its current course, their winters in 2080 will more closely resemble those experienced by folks in Searcy now. Average winters in Searcy are 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than those in Terre Haute. Sound good? Well, remember that winter isn't the only season. Hotter, more humid summers happen in Searcy, too.

As for precipitation, Searcy's winters are 53.6% wetter than those in Terre Haute.

"Eleven degrees on average warmer in winter is the difference between a snowy rainy winter and one where flowers are growing in February," Fitzpatrick said, comparing Terre Haute and Searcy. "It's a big difference."

Plus, Terre Haute will get that rain and snow in fewer but more prolific precipitation events, Fitzpatrick said, "which translates into flooding." It matters to future farmers. With warmer temperatures in west-central Indiana, more precipitation will be needed to maintain the necessary soil moisture for growing crops, Fitzpatrick added.

Of course, the biggest challenge to dealing with climate change is the strange, sad reality that it — like almost every aspect of life in the 21st century — has been politicized. Fitzpatrick said he tries to "stay out of politics," but acknowledged that the politicization of climate change is an obstacle to addressing it.

"There's so many decisions we need to make as a nation that have gotten wrapped up in politics, making it difficult for people to talk about it," he said.

Those discussions need to happen anyway. Those of us who've lived five, six, seven, eight, even nine decades know how fast time passes. Today's little kids, someday, could be wondering why their elders didn't take that into account and act.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Try out the map

—To compare the future climate of a city to the climate of another present-day city, go online to view this interactive map at https://fitzlab.shinyapps.io/cityapp/.