Climate change is expected to have certain, but unforeseen, consequences on the urban environment. There have been few comprehensive assessments of climate change impacts on metropolitan areas in the US. Potential impacts range from effects on urban natural landscapes and green spaces, to changes in surrounding ecosystems, to implications for energy demands, water supplies, air quality, public health, as well as economic losses. Dense urban populations and the complexity of the infrastructure systems magnify negative consequences of climate change. The Milwaukee Working Group was formed to address this gap in our understanding of impacts and to formulate adaptation strategies for the built environment and surrounding natural systems of Wisconsin's urban areas.


The Milwaukee Working Group started in February 2008 to address the impacts that climate change will have on highly urbanized areas in the state of Wisconsin and Lake Michigan. This effort brings together a broad range of expertise to adopt a multidisciplinary approach to tackle some of the most challenging problems created by climate change. The goals of this working group are to:

  1. organize a critical mass of researchers, professionals, and policy makers that span a wide range of disciplines (e.g., water resources, hydrology, public health, engineering, urban planning, economics);
  2. explore the impact of recent storm events and changes in temperature and precipitation patterns on the urban environment, relevant infrastructure, and the urban coastal system of Lake Michigan;
  3. people playing in the spray from a fire hydrant on a hot day

    Photo by McLellan Lab,
    Great Lakes WATER Institute

  4. detail how future climate change is likely to influence the Milwaukee urban environment, and
  5. formulate recommendations for adaptive management strategies.

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Potential Risks

As the climate changes, Wisconsin may see more heavy rain events and droughts. Decisions that relate to urban sewers and stormwater runoff should take these factors into account when planning for the future.

In addition to changes in precipitation and extreme event patterns, Wisconsinites will see hotter average summer temperatures through the next 20, 50 and 100 years, and Wisconsin may also see more days of extreme heat. City planners and residents need to be aware of these changes, and precautions need to be taken to prepare cities.

car driving through flooded street

Photo by Milwaukee Metropolitan
Sewage District

Additionally, as winters become warmer, temperatures may cross back and forth over the freezing point more often during the year. This fluctuation is important because it is one of the principal causes of road damage and potholes. Road repair costs the Wisconsin's cities and the Department of Transportation millions of dollars every year, not only on the repairs themselves, but also in lost revenue in areas made inaccessible by construction. Wisconsin may have to adjust its planning and infrastructure to adapt to these changes and reduce their negative impacts.

The Milwaukee working group is investigating these risks and interacting with climatologists to figure out how these climatic changes may impact Milwaukee and the other cities of Wisconsin.

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discarded household items on people's lawns

Glendale residents discard items damaged
by flood
Photo by Milwaukee Metropolitan
Sewage District

In regards to vulnerabilities, the infrastructure of Wisconsin's cities is the most vulnerable to these projected changes. Roads and stormwater and sewer systems are directly affected by climate conditions, and the Milwaukee Working Group is investigating how to reduce the vulnerability of infrastructure to climate change.

Urban residents are also vulnerable to floods, heatwaves, and droughts. The impacts of increased frequency and intensity of these events needs to be investigated in depth if Wisconsin's cities are to prepare for the changing climate.

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Data and Collaboration Needs

The Milwaukee Working Group has identified some strategies to acquire the information necessary to create adaptation plans and best collaborate with other scientists, climatologists, resource managers, and stakeholders:

  • Interface with the Wisconsin Climate Working Group to understand predictions and uncertainties in climate parameters of interest.
  • Identify infrastructure systems and services that are designed according to environmental or socioeconomic conditions that are very sensitive to climate.
  • Inventory current climate change assessment and planning activities within various agencies.
  • Determine linkages between climate change impacts on the Milwaukee Urban area and subsequent consequences for the lake Michigan ecosystem.
  • Identify current (or suspected) impacts due to climate change and any responses by involved agencies (e.g. changes in planning or management).
  • Identify short and long-term consequences of climate change scenarios on infrastructure systems and formulate recommendations for adaptive management.
newspaper vending machine in flood with headline 'next: flash flood watch'

Headline reads: "Next: Flash flood watch"
Photo by Milwaukee Metropolitan
Sewage District

The success of the Milwaukee Working Group will be closely related to the success of other groups within the climate change effort, including the Climate, Hydrology, and Public Health Working Groups.

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Future Plan

In order to work towards effective climate change adaptation for Milwaukee and other urban areas within Wisconsin, the working group will be responsible for the delivery of the following:

  1. Written document citing scope and goals of the working group.
  2. Pursue funding.
  3. Hold a conference to bring together the best thinking on these topics.
  4. Assessments of specific topics as defined by the working groups.
  5. Written report reviewing the current state of knowledge of climate change impacts on the urban environment, the areas (water, air, business, public health) in which Milwaukee is most vulnerable/sensitive to climate change, assessment of current and anticipated impacts of these areas under different climate scenarios, and recommendations for adaptive management.

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Please contact Sandra McLellan or Debra Jensen if you have any comments or concerns regarding Milwaukee and Wisconsin's cities in the changing climate.