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Ask the Ecologist:

by Belle Bergner

Q: Was the warm weather we had in December and January the result of global warming? And are the plants that started to grow during that warm-up going to be ruined in the spring?

A: It is important to remember that climate is the global, long-term, decadal or multiple-century average of weather patterns. Weather, on the other hand, is what happens on a short-term, daily or weekly basis. So while we can’t be the judge of whether the climate is warming on a daily or even monthly basis, as in the case of our freakishly warm weather last month, the long-term weather data is a different matter, because it is averaged over years or decades.

So what are the climate scientists saying? Multiple lines of evidence point to humaninduced global warming. Ten of the warmest years on record have occurred in the last 30 years. Average nighttime minimum temperatures are higher. The stratosphere (the uppermost layer of the atmosphere) is cooling. Polar ice is melting at unprecedented rates. All of those effects can’t be caused without greenhouse heattrapping gases like carbon dioxide (CO2).

And get this – big business is ready to set limits on their emissions. Ten major companies with nationwide operations – including General Electric here in Wisconsin – announced on January 18 a call for firm nationwide limits on carbon dioxide emissions that would lead to reductions of 10 to 30 percent over the next 15 years. So if big business is jumping on board the global warming bandwagon, the rest of us have no excuse not to do what we can, and there is a lot we can do.

One-third of all man-made CO2 emissions come from personal vehicle use. Another third is due to inefficient heating and electrical uses.

These stats certainly hold true in Milwaukee. According to Ann Beier, Sustainability Director for the City of Milwaukee, while We Energies and Jones Island (our main waste water treatment facility) are responsible for half of our City’s carbon emissions, at least a quarter is from residential heating, electricity use, and driving.

We can also look to the City, which is now leading by example under Beier’s charge. From using biodiesel in some of the city’s truck fleet, to purchasing ten percent of the City’s energy from renewable sources, saving $55,000 in reduced energy use costs thanks to energy audits of municipal buildings, to a geothermal and solar energy project at a city building in the Menomonee Valley, Milwaukee is on its way to having a low carbon diet.

Now to answer your second question: most native plants and trees, even non-native ones like tulips and other bulbs, should be just fine. They’ve evolved to be able go dormant again after a warm-up and re-emerge in the spring ready to go. Non-native flowering trees and shrubs may not be ok if they come from more southern climates. Ask your local nursery such as Kellners Greenhouse on Humboldt Ave. if there is something you can do to help your budding beauties come back.

Send your ecological inquiries to our resident ecologist at

Riverwest Currents online edition – February, 2007