Winter in Wisconsin can be absolutely miserable. It can freeze us to the bone. It can snow us in. It can keep us in near-constant darkness. Every year, winter tries to tear us down.
But every year, winter fails to ruin us. Winter is a special time here in our state. It’s part of who we are. Winter is a time for ice caves in the Apostles, snowmobiles on Lake Winnebago, skis on Granite Peak, ice climbers in Dodgeville, polar plunges in Milwaukee, pond hockey in Eagle River, ice sculptures in Lake Geneva and much more.
Even if only out of necessity, Wisconsinites cherish the cold and turns it into a time of opportunity.
That’s also true just blocks from my Capitol office here in Madison. Every winter, under the shadow of the dome, Lake Mendota becomes the capital’s “largest public park.” On any given day, Mendota is home to ice fishing, snow kiting, skating, ice yachting, snowshoeing and pond hockey. The winter ice that forms on this lake each year creates a wonderland.
Unfortunately, that wonderland is disappearing. This year, Lake Mendota officially froze on Jan. 12, nearly a month later than its median closing date over the last 164 winter seasons. In the past 10 seasons, the closing of Lake Mendota has come before the median closing date only twice. And over the past 164 seasons, the number of days that the lake has remained frozen has dropped from 120 days to just 80 days.
Simply put, climate disruption is diminishing ice levels on Lake Mendota. Experts predict that we could see a winter season in the next 30 years in which the lake never completely freezes over. That would mean an end to many long-held traditions on Mendota and an end to a cultural institution here in Madison.
What about the ice caves in the Apostles? They haven’t been accessible and safe for the public since 2015.
The snowmobiles on Winnebago? As of late January, the ice is still too thin in most places for snowmobiles and ATVs. Even the annual Winnebago sturgeon spearing is at risk due to thin ice.
The pond hockey in Eagle River? As recently as 2015, the annual tournament has been forced to move due to low ice thickness on Dollar Lake. This year, Eagle River’s annual ice castle and its ice fishing tournament were cancelled due to warming conditions.
Eventually, climate change will touch and forever alter nearly everything that makes Wisconsin winters special, though the effects of climate change will go beyond the winter season itself. Shorter, warmer winters lead to more moisture, more rainfall and more flooding across the state. It will also create higher mosquito populations, harmful changes for fish and birds, longer allergy seasons and more frequent and severe algae blooms.
Warmer winters have already contributed to flooding that has led to the cancellation of events such as the Beloit Autorama and the Prairie Du Chien Rendezvous Festival.
So as we brave the winter and possibly hope and pray for it to get even warmer, we have to come together to realize that climate disruption is having and will continue to have long-term effects that change our lives for the worse. As miserable as winter can be, the identity of this state relies on our willingness to save this season and to save the traditions that rely on it.
If you truly cherish this season and the joy it brings, please join the fight against climate change.