June 17, 2015
By Marie Zhuikov
Sea Grant climate change educators in the Great Lakes states have taken a tool developed in Mississippi-Alabama and adapted it for communities along the shores of our freshwater seas to use in preparing for the impacts of weather disruption. The educators have worked with several community planners in Wisconsin and northern Minnesota to assess the communities’ abilities to adapt under a changing climate, and they presented their work last month at a national climate adaptation forum. They hope other communities will follow suit.
The tool has a long name: A Self-Assessment to Address Climate Adaptation Readiness in Your Community. It was originally developed by the NOAA Coastal Storms Program at Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant. Staff with Minnesota Sea Grant saw a use for it in the Great Lakes Region, but the tool needed some tweaking.
“The original tool was focused on hurricanes and flooding,” said Hilarie Sorensen, climate change extension educator with Minnesota Sea Grant. “We customized the checklist for the Great Lakes. It’s meant to be a conversation-starter with communities that haven’t started the adaptation process yet but are interested in it, or communities that have a planning process coming up where they’d like to integrate a climate change component into it.”
Sea Grant staff help the communities go through the checklist of nine categories and identify where they are vulnerable and what tasks they can start with to prepare for the worst that new climate conditions can dish out. These include infrastructure, maintenance, water resources, tourism and business plans.
So far, two communities in Wisconsin have done so: the city of Ashland and Oconto County. Oconto County has been the first to incorporate the tool into an official planning process. They did this thanks to work by Angela Pierce, natural resources planner with the Bay Lake Regional Planning Commission, Julia Noordyk with Wisconsin Sea Grant and Sorensen.
“Climate change can be controversial, but Oconto County was great to work with,” said Pierce. “We explained that we were here to address the fact that things are changing and we need to be prepared. Hazard mitigation planning has always been based on past trends and with changing conditions, we can’t count on those anymore.”
The trio went through the self-assessment process with the county and in the process learned that the checklist needed to address wildfire and pest concerns more thoroughly. Pierce and Noordyk were able to adapt it to meet the county’s concerns by using information from the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts – a collaborative effort between the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the University of Wisconsin-Madison to scientifically assess climate impacts and limit vulnerability in Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest.
Pierce credits Sea Grant for providing the assistance to make community-specific climate change planning possible. She had tried in the past to incorporate personalized climate change actions into hazard mitigation plans but didn’t have the funding or tools to make it happen.
“Julia and Hilarie put in a lot of their time to develop the natural hazards and climate change section in the Oconto County plan,” Pierce said. “It was customized for the community – not just some summarized information. It’s one thing to gather information and put it in your plan. It’s another to go through the process with Sea Grant and have really good discussions that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
Right now, the climate change section is a stand-alone chapter in the Oconto plan. Pierce hopes to incorporate climate change throughout the plan in future updates and to work with other communities as they update their hazard mitigation plans.
Noordyk notes that in the future, local governments may be required to consider the impacts of climate change in their hazard mitigations plans in order to be approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and eligible for post-disaster funding. President Obama and FEMA have already announced that states will need to do so.
“Using this tool is a first step in getting communities to start thinking about how to integrate future climate conditions into planning processes they are already required to go through,” Noordyk said.
David Hart, Wisconsin Sea Grant assistant director for extension, said Oconto’s efforts are unique. “There haven’t been many hazard mitigation plans in Wisconsin that have included a climate change element.” And he credits Pierce’s willingness to address the issue.
Noordyk and Sorensen presented their work with Oconto County at the National Adaptation Forum held in May in St. Louis Mo., to make other planners and educators aware of the tool’s availability and usefulness.