• Q&A

Chicago, Climate Change And Weather: Your Questions Answered

What are possible signs of climate change in Chicago and the Great Lakes region? What is climate vs. weather?

Every week, WBEZ talks to experts who answer questions from us — and listeners — about everything from drought to snowfall, from heat waves to polar vortexes. Here are some highlights:

How could climate change affect seasonal allergies?

Pollen on a ragwort plant, which can torment allergy and asthma sufferers. Daniel Hulshizer / Associated Press

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has some bad news: Climate change could lead to greater concentrations of pollen. And research published this year suggests it’s already happening in North America.

Dr. Juanita Mora, from the Chicago Allergy Center, said there are two reasons for that. First, more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to increased plant growth and pollen production. Second, rising temperatures cause the seasons for tree, grass, and weed pollen to lengthen and overlap.

The result? “We’re seeing symptoms definitely that are a lot harder, and hitting people who normally don’t have any symptoms,” Mora said. She’s getting patients with more severe nasal congestion, post-nasal drip and more.

To hear the full conversation, click the red LISTEN button above.

Why did this summer in Chicago feel so hot?

chicago heat wave 2021
People taking advantage of early morning cooler temperatures along the Chicago lakefront in August 2021 as a heat wave brought highs in the 90s. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press

You weren’t imagining it — this summer was one of the hottest on record in Illinois. Illinois State Climatologist Dr. Trent Ford reported that summer 2021 was the eighth warmest, based on average temperature in the Chicago area. Four of the top 10 hottest summers have happened in the last 11 years.

But there was something else going on this summer that made it feel even hotter. “As we know, there’s a difference between a dry heat and a very humid heat,” Ford said.

He said at O’Hare, the dew point temperatures, which represent humidity, were uncomfortably high in more hourly measurements than usual. Plus, the dew point wasn’t dropping much at night, meaning there was less of a chance to recover from the daytime heat.

To hear the full conversation, click the red LISTEN button above.

How Can You Tell If A Company Is Actually Sustainable?

Cat & Jack jeans are on display at a Target store
In this July 2017 photo, Cat & Jack jeans are on display at a Target store, in New York. The jeans are made with Repreve polyester fabric, created from recycled plastic bottles. Mark Lennihan / Associated Press

“Greenwashing.” It’s a term used to describe when companies market products as more environmentally friendly than they really are. Dorelle in far southwest suburban Mokena wrote in to ask how shoppers can tell the difference between brands that are greenwashing, and brands that are truly green.

Try to determine the company’s underlying message. That’s the advice from Xi Marquez, the associate director of education at The Nature Conservancy and a sustainability content creator. Marquez said the goal of many companies is endless consumption, and their eco-friendly advertising is another way to get you to buy more. She also recommended looking for third-party certifications, like Green Seal and the U.S. EPA’s Safer Choice, especially when shopping for household products.

And Marquez’s No. 1 tip? Shop locally.

To hear the full conversation, click the red LISTEN button above.

What Does The UN Climate Report Mean For Chicago?

A wave splashes along Chicago’s lakefront
A wave splashes along Chicago's lakefront. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

By now, you’ve likely heard about the major report on climate change released in August 2021 by the United Nations. Scientists warn that global climate change is accelerating, and that limiting the impact will require immediate, drastic cuts in emissions.

Atmospheric scientist Dr. Scott Collis said the message for our area is consistent with previous research: Chicago and the Midwest are likely to get hotter and wetter. “The more warm you make air, the more moisture it can suck up,” said Collis. “This leads to more severe rainstorms.”

That could have a variety of effects on life here, according to Illinois state climatologist Dr. Trent Ford. He said there could be increased risk of heat exposure and flooding. Plus, warmer winters could help invasive species move in, and make disease-causing insects like mosquitoes and ticks more prevalent.

To hear the full conversation, click the red LISTEN button above.

How Are Insects Affected By Climate Change?

A bee lands on a flower
A bee lands on a flower. Mike Groll / Associated Press

We often talk about the big effects of climate change, but what about the small? Dari from northwest suburban Grayslake wrote in asking about climate change’s impact on some of our tiniest living things: insects.

The temperature and moisture in the environment play a major role in the lives of insects, said Professor Alex Harmon-Threatt, a pollination ecologist at the University of Illinois. That’s because most insects are ectotherms; they depend on external sources of heat. Changes in their environments can alter their metabolisms, or shift when they emerge so that they don’t line up with the plants they need.

And as Harmon-Threatt explained, the disruption of these little creatures could have a major impact. Her focus is on pollinators, like bees. She said if pollinator populations decrease, so will the plants that depend on them to reproduce. That includes fruits and vegetables that provide much of our nutrients.

To hear the full conversation, click the red LISTEN button above.

What’s The Difference Between Weather And Climate?

People walk on the sidewalk during a snowy day in Chicago
People walk on the sidewalk during a snowy day, Sunday, April 14, 2019, in Chicago. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press

To kick off our weekly climate conversations, it’s important to understand what we’re talking about when we say “climate.” What’s climate, what’s just weather, and how do the two relate?

Illinois state climatologist Dr. Trent Ford boiled it down this way: “Climate is really what we expect, and weather is what we get.” According to Ford, weather describes the atmosphere at a certain moment, like in a weather forecast. Climate describes the statistical average over time.

For example, based on climatological averages, the expected last day of snowfall in the Chicago area is around April 4. But the weather we get differs year to year. Ford said in 2012, the last day of measurable snow was March 4. In 2019, there were more than two inches of snow at O’Hare on April 27.

To hear the full conversation, click the red LISTEN button above.