Hoosiers brace for climate change

In 1837, decades before record-keepers started archiving Indiana’s weather, Perry Fowler’s great-great grandfather bought a plot of land on the Monroe-Greene county line. Fowler’s dad bought it back after it changed hands.

He gave it to me under the stipulation that it will go on for a few more generations,” Fowler said.

These days, Fowler and his wife Renee use the land to raise cattle, but that’s not enough to pay all the bills. They rely on Fowler’s job as a union electrician, and agritourism—weddings at the barn and their popular fall pumpkin patch—to make ends meet. This year, though, the Fowlers took a hit.

Wet weather later in the season caused a fungus to grow on the Fowlers’ pumpkins. By late October, their expected yield of 25,000 pumpkins was down 85 percent. To meet demand through the end of the season, they bought pumpkins wholesale from luckier farmers and resold them.

“I don’t want to spray fungicides,” Fowler said. “But from here on out, I’m going to have to.”

According to the Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment, Fowler might be right. Records show that climate change has already increased yearly rainfall in Indiana by 5.6 inches since 1895. It’s also caused the average temperature to rise.

“A rising average temperature  changes the timing and length of the frost-free season when plants grow,” states the report. “These shifts will impact air quality, extend the growing season and the allergy season, and create more favorable conditions for some pests and invasive species.”

Student and faculty researchers at the Fudickar Lab are trying to predict the effects of these changes on animals like migratory birds. In a new experiment, they also raise cutworms into moths and manipulate their environments to see how they react.

“So the information that we’re gaining from this study will help [farmers] better prepare for the seasonal invasion of agricultural pests,” research scientist Adam Fudickar said.

Fudickar’s lab was born out of an IU Grand Challenges initiative called Prepared for Environmental Change, which encompasses many projects to predict and prepare for climate change’s effect on Indiana. Their work is urgent, considering an October UN report that gives policymakers just 12 years to prevent catastrophic temperature rises.

“We have to get more proactive instead of trying to distance ourselves from the rest of the world,” Fowler said. “We have to be a world leader. We have to step up to the plate.”

To that end, organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council often recommend infrastructure changes homeowners can make to reduce their environmental impact—things like installing solar panels or weatherizing homes. But because those changes aren’t accessible to most students, Elizabeth Grubb, the Utilities and Behavior Change intern at the IU Office of Sustainability, emphasizes smaller behaviors.

Grubb said that to live more sustainably, students can walk or use public transportation whenever possible instead of driving, unplug electronics they’re done using, and cut down on shower times.

Close your blinds so it’s not as hot when the sun is beating down in humid Indiana, right?” Grubb said. “Just simple things like that.”

During this year’s four-week Energy Challenge, IU students and staff used behaviors like these to save a collective 877,416 gallons of water and 760,314 kilowatt-hours of energy.

No matter how much future climate change can be prevented, Hoosiers like Fowler have had to adapt to the change they’ve already witnessed.

“My dad always told me that if [farming] was easy, you know, everybody would be doing it,” Fowler said. “And if it was as easy as collecting money, it wouldn’t be called farming.”