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By Alex Piazza
Climate change remains a critical policy issue leading up to the November presidential election, and according to University of Michigan researchers, it is not only already happening, but it also poses growing threats to public health.
"Climate change is not something that we are waiting on to happen—it's already happening on a global scale," said Elizabeth Gibbons, program manager for Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments (GLISA).
And based on findings from U-M researchers Sarah Mills and Barry Rabe, American acceptance of global warming is at its highest level since 2008.
In Michigan, scientists report the average annual temperature has increased by about 1°F over the past 65 years. Future projections show temperatures will continue to rise anywhere from 1.5°F to 4.5°F by 2050.
So what does this mean for you? For starters, consider your health. U-M researchers teamed up with state public health officials to determine how climate change could influence the health of Michiganders.
Together, they produced the Michigan Climate and Health Profile Report as a framework to help state and local governments prepare for potential public health concerns spurred by warming temperatures and heavy rainstorms. Fifteen other states are developing similar reports as part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Climate-Ready States and Cities Initiative.
"One of the great things about the field of climate change and health is that you really need people from all different disciplines to think about the problem, and then you connect the science with action," said Marie O'Neill, associate professor of environmental health sciences and epidemiology. "That's the approach reflected in the report."
Beat the heat
Temperatures surpassed 100°F in many parts of the state, and they remained above 90°F for consecutive days.
"Here in Michigan, we don't often think of extreme heat as a problem," said Larissa Larsen, associate professor of urban and regional planning and natural resources. "We concentrate more on wintry conditions, but that needs to change."
Heat is actually the biggest weather-related killer in the U.S., claiming, on average, more lives each year than floods, lightning, tornadoes and hurricanes combined, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Extreme heat events can exacerbate pre-exisiting health conditions like diabetes, heart disease and other respiratory ailments. And when heat reduces your body's ability to control its internal temperature, a number of adverse health outcomes can arise.
Scientists project that, by 2050, Michigan residents each year will experience anywhere from five to 25 more days in which temperatures exceed 95°F.
"We try to be somewhat conservative and not use the worst-case scenario, but at the same, we must recognize that this is a real issue and we have to address it," Larsen said.
One way to address climate change is through design interventions. Take vegetation for example. Larsen and O'Neill have worked together on a number of research projects that focus on extreme heat in urban areas, including Detroit. Their findings suggest a lack of vegetation often corresponds with high temperatures.
"The last thing I want to hear is that we should no longer live in cities because of issues like extreme heat," Larsen said. "A lot of my work focuses on how we can make cities as liveable as possible through urban planning initiatives, like planting trees to provide shade and reduce air pollution."
Pack an umbrella
Severe storms spit more than six inches of rain on parts of southeast Michigan in August 2014, prompting President Barack Obama to declare a major disaster for Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties.
"In terms of extreme precipitation, we've seen that the frequency and intensity of severe storms has increased," said Laura Briley, GLISA research associate.
Regardless of intensity, annual precipitation across the Midwest has increased during the past century. Since 1951, scientists report the average annual precipitation in Michigan has increased by 4.5 percent, or 1.4 inches. The most extreme case is Ann Arbor, where annual precipitation has reportedly increased by 25 percent since 1951.
This poses a serious concern for public health officials because flooding and excees rain can lead to a number of health complications.
In August 2014, heavy rains and flooding caused fertilizer runoff on farms across the Midwest. That runoff is one factor that spurred toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie, which contaminated the drinking water supply of more than 400,000 Toledo residents.
The risk of carbon monoxide poisoning rises after severe storms because some residents who lose electricity improperly kick on their generator to power their home.
And then there are those pesky mosquitoes that Michiganders have grown accustomed to during the summer months. Changing rainfall patterns influence the seasonal activity length of several Michigan mosquito species that carry and transmit harmful diseases.
The mosquito species that transmits West Nile Virus, which led to 17 deaths in Michigan in 2012, thrives on warm, wet winters and springs, followed by hot summers. Future climate projections call for similar conditions across Michigan, which could allow these insects to survive in greater numbers in the years ahead.
"Extreme precipitation is just as much of a risk as extreme heat," Gibbons said. "The increase in precipitation is really the calling card of climate change for the region and for Michigan. We also have this dual challenge of having a lot of legacy infrastructures and legacy cities in the Midwest that aren't necessarily able to accommodate these big storms. The research conducted as part of this report allows us all to better prepare and adapt to climate change."