Some people celebrate finishing high school with a graduation party or by basking in their newfound free time. Others, like Pete Nielsen, choose to spend 37 nights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska “just backpacking around.”
“The outdoors is really rewarding in a way that I think you don’t experience in the civilized world as much,” says Nielsen, a cartography major at UW–Madison and outdoor enthusiast. “When you climb a mountain the goal is there and you know what you have to do to climb it and if you got on top and it’s like ‘You did it.’”
Nielsen represents the many who consider nature an integral part of their lives and want to pass that love on and share it with others. However, in a changing climate, many of today’s outdoor luxuries may become a thing of the past as the strains on the environment threaten our ability to play in our natural playground. Without drastic action, Wisconsin, with its abundance of lakes, is among the states that may suffer the most.
“It’s just a matter of making it … realizing that it is a crisis. It’s like the Great Depression or World War II,” says Steve Carpenter, professor of integrative biology and former director of the Center of Limnology at UW–Madison.
The human population over the past few hundred years has grown exponentially, with a quadrupling of the global population in the 20th century alone, and we now share a home with nearly 8 billion other humans. Combined with, and largely due to industrialization, the global increase in population means we’re now putting more stress on the Earth than ever before. In the case of this home, we can’t sell it and buy another, or sign a new lease somewhere else.
“We’re not going to Mars. We’ve got to make this planet work for all 8 billion of us, and we need to maintain life on Earth, because we depend on [it],” Carpenter says.
International scientists agree that these extreme changes are real, consequential and mostly due to the action of humans.
While a warmer climate may sound nice in theory (especially for those of us settling in for winter in Wisconsin), the effects of climate change on both the global and local scale are severe and will continue to escalate. While the overall impact of climate change is centered around the warming of the Earth and subsequent effects, certain regions experience unique consequences. The long list includes more extreme weather such as hurricanes, torrential downpours and droughts, which each have their own branch of effects. While it’s dangerous to declare climate change as the sole reason for a specific weather event, it’s becoming easier among the science community to assign an estimate.
“There are new methods to actually kind of try to attribute, ‘OK, this hurricane was probably 50 percent worse than it would have been, and that means this might [cost] X number of dollars and X number of lives,’” says David Abel, senior doctoral student in energy analysis and policy at UW–Madison.
Wisconsin is one of the states that has the most to gain by forcing action against climate change. The lakes — especially the Great Lakes — and agriculture of the Dairy State play large roles nationally for both resources and recreation. The combination of more extreme weather patterns, pollution, and increasing population and consumption mean fresh water, already a precious resource is only going to become more precious. With more than 15,000 lakes and more than 1,000 miles of coast along the Great Lakes, fresh water is a key component in Wisconsin’s leisure and economy.
One of the main problems directly facing Wisconsin and its natural treasures is something you’ve probably never considered: Phosphorus.
“We’ve now just added so much phosphorus to the soil that every time it rains we have some big pollution event,” Carpenter says. “And it’s raining more.”
Sewage and waste runoff, as well as agricultural uses, are main reasons for the abundance of phosphorus, or eutrophication, of our lakes and groundwater. Too much phosphorus in bodies of water causes two main issues: the growth of algae, which can produce toxic blooms, and a shortage of oxygen deeper in the water source. These play into one another, causing a network of issues, including the water becoming dangerous or deadly to humans and mammals who consume it, while greatly reducing or completely eliminating the quality fish in the water. For anyone who has seen (or even better, smelled) a lake with an algae bloom, it’s clearly not a desirable future.
Wisconsin relies heavily on its water systems for both recreation and the economy, with more than $2 billion dollars in fishing-related economic activity annually. Large-scale droughts and heat waves will continue to intensify throughout parts of the country and continue to put stress on the importance of fresh water, while the Great Lakes region experiences increased precipitation, and in turn, pollution in the area that holds most of the country’s fresh water.
“We really need to … treat Wisconsin as if we’d like to be here for a thousand years. Right now we’re treating Wisconsin like we would like to be here a couple decades,” Carpenter says.
Experts say protecting our land and water is vital moving forward, as not only does nature provide all the resources needed to go about our daily lives, it also provides health benefits for those who choose to take advantage of it. Whether an outdoor enthusiast or not, nearly everyone benefits from stepping outside for some fresh air or going on a camping trip and immersing themselves in nature.
“There is increasing evidence that mental well-being, psychological well-being, is associated with experiences in nature,” Carpenter says.
Nielsen has seen the benefits firsthand, both in himself and the dozens of others he’s led on multi-week backpacking excursions such as a 25-day trek through the Wind River Mountain Range in Wyoming. With long stretches of time spent in nature, Nielsen described how much the kids he leads learn and how he sees it as rewarding.
“They get really reflective on what their outside life is,” Nielsen says. “There’s a system of rewards that’s super immediate, which I think is a really positive thing for them.”
While the imposing threat of a changing climate may make some people afraid, experts say it’s important that fear not lead to inaction. Put bluntly, scientists warn things are bad and going to get worse. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists brought together by the United Nations, said in October that without rapid and far-reaching changes, climate change could pose extreme threats to global human health by the end of the century.
The problem often seems too big to tackle, leaving many feeling as if their individual contributions are meaningless. “How can I, a reader of Curb magazine, help save the planet?” you may think to yourself.
When people recognize and speak out about the problem and action needed to mitigate it, they are already contributing greatly to the cause. A societal shift in the way we view our relationship with the Earth needs to take place. Abel, among other climate experts, has spoken on how people forego climate action because they feel unaffected, or focus on what they feel is a more immediate threat.
“It’s the same idea as smoking,” Abel says. “If it’s something where you do [it] at one point in time, but the impact isn’t felt until later, or over a long stretch of time, people tend to have a hard time comparing that to something else that’s immediate.”
Realizing the importance of nature for both the survival and enjoyment of mankind is crucial, as is making sure that those in the future can experience this key human element.
“The outdoors is such an important aspect of what it means to be human … we’ve always been so connected with [it], and it’s only been the last 200 years that we’ve started to really get away [from a connection to nature],” says David O’Keeffe, president of Hoofers at UW–Madison, a club focused on outdoor recreation.
As opposed to projecting fear to promote climate action, many outdoor enthusiasts and experts instead focus on the benefits and beauty of nature, pushing others to find inspiration through experience. One person can’t win the war on climate change, but the actions of many individuals can compound to make a large, collective difference. Therefore assuring that nature is accessible to all, both now and for years to come, is a large step in shaping societal perceptions on the environment and how it’s treated.
“Going camping isn’t going to save the world … [but] it’s our responsibility to increase access to the outdoors, which will foster appreciation for the outdoors, which will help us save the world,” O’Keeffe says.