Communities “BRACE” for weather extremes

Mar 20 2014 |

Unpredictability. That's the new norm for Wisconsin communities as climate change raises the risk of heat waves, heavy rainstorms, compromised tap water, insect-borne disease outbreaks or other extreme events.

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A child finds relief in the water as Milwaukee's workers and residents deal with prolonged summer heatwaves and the risks that go along with living in heat islands. (AP photo/Morry Gash)

To help municipal agencies prepare for these possible outcomes, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) has received a four-year, $1 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to connect atmospheric data and climate projections with public health impacts anticipated by researchers and medical professionals throughout the state.

The grant, awarded to Wisconsin in October 2012, originates from the CDC's Climate Ready State and Cities Initiative. The program—called BRACE, Building Resilience Against Climate Effects—kicked into gear last year once program manager Jeffrey Phillips and epidemiologist Megan Christenson joined the project.

Thanks to climate data and projections developed by the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI), the BRACE project had a head start on meeting its first reporting deadline.

“We had to have the Wisconsin Climate and Health Profile Report in place by the end of the first year,” says Phillips. “It sets the framework, the cornerstone from where all the rest of the work develops. With the climate trend data and projection stuff done, all we had to do was read it, understand it, and go from there.”

A year after the 2011 release of WICCI's first comprehensive climate impacts report, southern Wisconsin saw a record-breaking summer. Spanning the week of July 4, 2012, temperatures soared into the 100s, barely cooling at night. Stifling heat, buckling pavement, lakeshores choked with b3lue-green algal blooms, tempers flaring and babies and senior citizens overcome by the heat provided a possible preview of events that are more likely in the future, according to WICCI projections.

This was especially true for those living within the concrete-rich communities such as Milwaukee. Cityscapes serve as heat islands, absorbing the day's heat in sidewalks, buildings, walls and roads. At night, the heat radiates back into the air, negating the relief that might otherwise come from lower nighttime temperatures. And, under prolonged heat waves, it all starts again at sunrise.

Other extreme events are also projected to become more frequent. Heavy rainstorms, for example, could mean more flooding, outbreaks of West Nile Virus from the subsequent burst of mosquitoes, and the spread of tick-borne diseases.

To get a handle on a broad range of potential climate impacts, the BRACE team began by assembling a state-level advisory group with climate knowledge. The group includes researchers at UW-Madison's Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research, representatives from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, local environmental health specialists from Rock and Wood counties, and people from the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council, Milwaukee Public Health Department, National Weather Service, UW Sea Grant, and UW-Milwaukee.

With their help, Phillips has compiled a state-wide assessment of vulnerability, resulting in BRACE support for three efforts.

The first is a flood vulnerability assessment, a storm transposition program that uses a model developed by WICCI affiliates Ken Potter and David Liebl at select municipalities around the state.

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Extreme weather events that lead to flooding can increase the spread of disease, contaminate tap water and increase mosquito populations, a few of the risks DHS is tackling. (WDNR photo)

The second BRACE project is building a heat vulnerability index that correlates geographic locations with extreme temperatures from July 2013, employing census data to pinpoint people most at risk. (Vulnerability assessments include factors such as income, age of housing, transportation availability and age.)

“We're ready to run the first set of maps statewide and see how it looks,” says Phillips. “Then we can provide it to groups such as county health departments wanting to work on climate adaptability.”

According to Phillips, once the state heat index template is in place, BRACE will partner with the Milwaukee Heat Task Force to complete an index focused on the greater Milwaukee area where most heat fatalities occur.

The third BRACE-supported effort is a study of disease-carrying insects and WICCI climate projections for northwestern Wisconsin.

“This region is warming faster than rest of state, particularly with fewer freezing nights,” says Phillips. “From La Crosse to Eau Claire to Spooner, this part of the state has warmed immensely as compared to the rest of the state, creating a vector pool of mosquitoes that could be carrying West Nile virus as the overwintering population is not frozen out.”

Black legged tick populations are also changing. This spring, UW-Madison entomologist Susan Paskewitz, partnering with the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, will establish a baseline on deer and lone star tick populations to identify migratory trends that may be applicable to other parts of Wisconsin as the state warms.

“Our goal is to have a statewide climate adaptation plan by the end of the four-year grant,” says Phillips. “If we bring in all players—emergency management, the regional planning commission, DNR water quality, the well drilling community, health departments—then the planning for climate impacts generates a life of its own.”

Phillips sees the BRACE project as a logical extension of DHS's public health mandate.

“Our job is protecting the health and well-being of people we serve, like protecting an individual, just on a larger scale—pull all stakeholders together, get strategic plans in place—everyone working on a locally relevant health impact plan,” says Phillips. “You're there to help people.”