If you’ve ever slept in a tent on a hot summer night, you know how sticky it can get, especially if there’s no breeze coming through the mesh screens. Unfortunately, the number of hot nights, and high heat days, is on the rise in Missouri and Southern Illinois — and experts predict the trend will continue as average temperatures climb globally.
And that’s just one consequence of climate change. Local outdoor enthusiasts can also expect to see more rainfall, flooding, and extreme weather events — along with less snowfall — all adding up to more barriers for favorite activities and sports like hiking, cycling, climbing, paddling, and snow skiing.
Yes, talking about climate change can be gloomy, even divisive. Yet, we who embrace adventure in the great outdoors often have an advantage over the couch-sitters. We have something that experts say will be needed as humankind faces a new reality. It’s called resilience, and it shows up every time we find the grit to pedal up the last big hill on a 50-mile bike ride or sprint the final 100 yards of a 10K.
Our push to achieve is the same type of resolve that’s needed to navigate climate change. If we can funnel our energy towards reducing our personal carbon footprint, we collectively can help mitigate the worst-case scenarios that climatologists predict.
Let’s look at what experts say we can expect in the future in our region, and how we can best prepare.
Get Out the Rain Gear
If it seems like heavy rainstorms are more frequent these days, you’re not imagining it. Over the last 50 years, rainfall in the Midwest on the four wettest days of the year has increased 35 percent, and the amount of water during the worst flood of the year has increased by more than 20 percent.
The National Climate Assessment projects that extreme precipitation in Missouri and Illinois in winter and spring will continue to increase, raising the frequency and intensity of floods.
Obviously, more rain means fewer days for outdoor activities. Well into summer and fall, high water levels and flooding from the spring can continue to put a damper on things.
Canoeing and kayaking are more challenging when river levels are up. The launch area or roads leading to put ins may be closed due to flooding, and debris such as logs and tree limbs can make navigation tricky and sometimes dangerous.
The wildly popular MR340, an annual paddling race on the Missouri River that crosses the state from Kansas City to St. Charles, has been delayed five times in 14 years due to flooding issues. Race founder Scott Mansker said the first delay occurred in 2009. Last year, he had to push back the early August date multiple times, finally managing to hold a vastly scaled back version in November.
“We dodged the flooding so many of the other years and managed to sneak the race in, in between crests,” Mansker said.
The Missouri River is deeper and faster than other rivers due to a channel that the Army Corps of Engineers dug in the 1940s to better handle commercial traffic. The Corps built dams and reservoirs upstream in the Dakotas to store water for dry times and keep barges going, but that isn’t helpful these days.
“They’re not built for what is happening now,” said Mansker, referring to increased rainfall and flooding. “The Corps of Engineers keeps saying this is the new normal. They have to let out more water from the reservoirs this spring because they didn’t get all the water out for the last season. What that means for us down here is the river is a few feet higher and pushes us above flood stage. We’ve been fighting this since 2011.
“Every year, we’re crossing our fingers, hoping to get the race in,” said Mansker, who also looks at the impact rising water is having on shoreline erosion. “There needs to be a shoreline so you can pull off.”
The Tale of the Trail
River flooding isn’t just a problem for paddlers. Katy Trail users had to negotiate numerous closings last year, some sections unusable for months due to severe flooding of the Missouri River. Missouri State Parks said about 100 miles of the 240-mile trail were inaccessible at times: underwater, washed out, or closed due to damaged bridges. This resulted in a more than 12-percent drop in visitors from the previous year.
Similar flooding issues last year closed sections of the hiking and biking trails at Castlewood State Park, which is bordered by the Meramec River. Parts of the Mississippi and River des Peres greenways in St. Louis also were closed due to extreme flooding of their namesake waterways.
“Although the issue of climate change is not in the forefront of the concerns of most St. Louisans, there are important consequences that this region will face in the future, ranging from more frequent widespread flooding to the profitability of the region’s agricultural economy.”
Dr. Jack Fishman, director of the Center for Environmental Sciences at St. Louis University (2018)
Farmers, landowners, and other residents in four states — Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska — want the Corps of Engineers to give flood protection a higher priority than environmental and recreational needs, and senators from these states are pushing legislation that would require the Corps to build more levees on the Missouri River.
David Lobbig, curator of environmental life at the Missouri Historical Society, has another view of how flooding should be handled. He said the Corps continually restores the flood-damaged banks to maintain the shipping channel, which handles mostly gravel barges.
“It’s kind of absurd,” said Lobbig. “Keeping a river in place is hard to do and expensive.”
Today, the Missouri River has a narrow, fast channel that is restricted by levees, with few outlets for excess water to drain. When the water reaches flood stage, the damage is significant and widespread.
But the Missouri used to be a wide river that naturally flooded into wetlands and various channels. Lobbig and others would like to see the Corps favor rewilding and biodiversity efforts to restore the natural equilibrium and protect bird and fish species. Without wetlands, many freshwater species cannot thrive and reproduce, he said.
The “Mighty Mississippi” exhibit Lobbig created at the Missouri History Museum — on display now through April 2021 — sheds light on how the health of surrounding communities has long depended on wisely caring for the river environment and its resources, and it includes a section on flood management and the Missouri River.
Hot and Hotter
St. Louis has the second highest average summer temperatures of all Midwestern metro areas, as well as some of the highest humidity levels — no surprise to anyone who lives here.
Over the past 30 years, on average, the Gateway City has experienced eight days each year with temperatures over 95 degrees Fahrenheit. However, according to The Risky Business Project, which quantifies economic risks posed by climate change, we will see a likely increase to 16 to 35 extremely hot days on average in the near term, and 49 to 126 extremely hot days by end of century.
In other words, St. Louis will feel more like Phoenix, Arizona.
“Of all the metro areas we assessed, the St. Louis area is likely to face the most severe climate risks,” said The Risky Business Project.
That’s not great news for people who love the outdoors.
“Missouri’s climate is changing. Most of the state has warmed one-half to one degree (F) in the last century, and floods are becoming more frequent. In the coming decades, the state will have more extremely hot days, which may harm public health in urban areas and corn harvests in rural areas.”
Environmental Protection Agency (2017)
Higher temperatures bring not only discomfort but also the prospect of more pests. Short, mild winters allow insects more time to reproduce and increase their numbers. Mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas come out earlier than usual. Lyme disease, which is transmitted through ticks, could become more prevalent.
Heat-related illnesses could also become more common, meaning that outdoor enthusiasts may need to shorten their routes on especially hot days to prevent issues.
Another concern about the heat is the likely increase in algae blooms in lakes that already have contaminants. These toxic blooms can create a “dead zone” in which no fish or plants can survive, and the water can be lethal for humans and their pets.
Boathouse Lake in Carondelet Park in St. Louis and the lake at Indian Camp Creek Park in St. Charles County both had to be closed last summer due to algae blooms. Many privately owned lakes have this issue as well.
No Snow, No Show
Milder winters are already occurring here and are predicted to become even warmer in the coming years. Ski resorts such as Hidden Valley in Wildwood, Missouri, are definitely thinking about this.
Greg Gavrilets, general manager at Hidden Valley, says its snow machines can pump 6,600 gallons of water per minute, covering slopes with two to three feet of snow over 24 hours.
But what happens on warm winter days?
“The general approach is we groom it, which insulates the rest of the snow-pack. We can go weeks at a time without making snow,” Gavrilets said.
Still, people tend to think the snow melts rapidly and that skiing is out of the question, which hurts business. And Gavrilets reports that Hidden Valley did have to shut down for two weeks last January because of 60-degree temperatures.
“It just got too warm, and we weren’t able to make snow. We’ve had temperature closures before, but this was unusual in its duration,” Gavrilets said. “To have an extended shutdown like that was tough.”
The ski industry is doing its part to combat climate change. Vail Resorts, which acquired Hidden Valley last summer, is working to achieve a “commitment to zero” goal by 2030. This means zero net emissions, zero waste to landfill, and zero net operating impact on forests and habitat. The measurements apply to all aspects of operations, whether in their restaurants or on the slopes.
“It’s a pretty ambitious goal and is leading the ski industry’s response to climate change,” Gavrilets said. “We’re definitely seeing a change in our weather pattern, but as a business, we’re taking all factors in account.”
Hidden Valley opened a ZipTour attraction on the resort grounds last summer to help boost revenue streams in the off-season.
Creating a Climate of Hope
Two big issues must be addressed to help reduce the impact of climate change, says Heather Navarro, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.
The first is reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, so that we don’t hit the “two-degree tipping point.” Two degrees above pre-industrial levels is considered the threshold at which warming becomes catastrophic, threatening human survival. This could happen by the end of the century if things don’t change, experts say.
Navarro is optimistic when she talks about what some cities are doing to reduce emissions.
“Cities are really reducing their energy use. St. Louis City just passed ordinance to require solar-panel readiness on all new buildings. Other towns in Missouri are doing that, too,” she said. “Kansas City is doing a ton with promoting EV [electric vehicle] charging stations. Staunton, Missouri, is teaming up with utilities to try to increase renewable energy.”
The second big thing: Build up resiliency to the changes that are coming.
Navarro means resiliency in the form of building a green infrastructure. One example is using raingardens to naturally filter pollution from water and to reduce the amount of water overall that goes into sewers.
“People say: ‘Why worry about water in St. Louis? We have so much. It’s so cheap.’ But it takes a lot of energy to clean it. All that rainwater, as well as the water we use, is going into the sewer system. The more we can capture and use, the better. Cities are seeing that flooding backs up traffic, causes mold issues, basements are damaged….”
Navarro is a fan of pervious pavement, which is designed to allow percolation or infiltration of stormwater through the surface into the soil below, where the water is naturally filtered and stored.
Making homes and businesses more energy efficient will be key, as higher temperatures will likely result in people running their air conditioners longer. Urban reforestation is also needed. “Trees help take up water, clean the air, provide shade,” Navarro said.
Also on her list is one that should be obvious but bears repeating: recycling. “We need to keep recycling to build that industry up.”
Author: Terri Waters is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.
What an excellent article! It’s an unhappy subject and bodes difficult times here and elsewhere, but there’s nothing to be gained by failing to understand and prepare for the future. Thanks, Terri.