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Climate change might play huge role in future of Adirondacks

Sunday, May 11, 2014
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Flooding like this at Erie Canal Lock 14 in Canajoharie in June 2013 could pose a "growing challenge," according to the National Climate Assessment.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson
Flooding like this at Erie Canal Lock 14 in Canajoharie in June 2013 could pose a "growing challenge," according to the National Climate Assessment.

— Curt Stager sees an Adirondacks in the future that is different.

Hotter. Wetter. Winters will be shorter, summers longer. Floodwaters will rise beneath more torrential downpours. The ecosystem and economics of the region will change.

“I may get better tomato plants,” Stager said, “but they could be under 6 feet of water.”

In fact, he already sees the differences attributed to climate change. Others do, too. All you need is a set of eyes, they said.

“We are seeing stuff on a scale we’ve never seen before,” said Bill McKibben, an author, Middlebury College professor and founder of the environmental group 350.org. “This is a new world.”

Stager is an ecologist, paleoclimatologist and science journalist, as well as a professor at Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks. He also serves as a research associate at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute. He has studied climate changes in the Adirondacks spanning the years.

This past week saw the release of the National Climate Assessment. Stager said the findings

were hardly surprising — which makes them even stronger.

“There are multiple reports like this that have been coming out in recent years,” he said. “The power of it is they are all basically saying the same thing.”

Dismal forecast

The national assessment, issued by U.S. Global Change Research Program, painted a bleak picture for the country, including the Northeast, as the result of climate change.

“Heat waves, coastal flooding, and river flooding will pose a growing challenge to the region’s environmental, social, and economic systems,” the report reads. “This will increase the vulnerability of the region’s residents, especially its most disadvantaged populations. Infrastructure will be increasingly compromised by climate-related hazards, including sea level rise, coastal flooding, and intense precipitation events.”

“Agriculture, fisheries, and ecosystems will be increasingly compromised over the next century by climate change impacts. Farmers can explore new crop options, but these adaptations are not cost- or risk-free. Moreover, adaptive capacity, which varies throughout the region, could be overwhelmed by a changing climate.”

Stager summed it up:

“It really makes your hair stand on end. You can certainly see it here,” he said. “The North Country is changing, for better or worse, and the Adirondacks of today will not be the Adirondacks of our grandchildren.”

Colin Beier, a research associate at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse who has a summer residence at the Adirondack Ecological Center in Newcomb, takes it one step further.

“The one thing about these assessments is, when you pull all the pieces together and think about what’s happening .... this is happening now,” Beier said. “This is not what’s happening to our grandkids.”

Stager doesn’t want to get into the political debate that often swirls around climate change, since he and others say there is no debate to be had.

“The debate is not in the scientific community; the data are in,” he said. “The basics are clear, and [climate change] is mostly due to us.”

Both he and Beier said while some North Country people will still argue about global warming and its impact, they readily accept and discuss the changes they have seen.

“If you talk to Adirondack folks about climate change and carbon, they will shut down,” Beier said. “But if you talk to them about snow and why the ice on the lake is soft and mushy and they can’t get out on it, they will talk all day.”

Lake ice is a key indicator of the changes happening in the North Country.

“If you talk to people who run ice contests, they keep the dates written down. You can see ice is spending less time on the lakes in winter,” Stager said. “Winter is getting shorter, and you can see it in the thinning of the ice.

“We have a 200-year record from Lake Champlain of freeze-up dates. In the 1800s, only three winters it didn’t freeze in the middle. In the last century, it has stayed open more than it freezes. This is our local version of the deicing of the Arctic.”

Disturbing pattern

According to the assessment, between 1895 and 2011, temperatures in the Northeast increased by almost 2 degrees. Meanwhile, between 1958 and 2010, there was almost a 70 percent increase in extreme precipitation during significant weather events.

“There is a pattern here. We have a half-dozen weather stations in the park whose records go back a century,” Stager said. “By leafing through the daily records of rain storms, you can see a significant trend that the amount of rain in a downpour is increasing.

“And just as you would expect from the models, we are getting more thunderstorms. You get blowdowns and sudden downpours and flooding, and you get lightning strikes.”

Beier notes that sugar maples and hemlocks are at risk. Farmers, ski and syrup businesses and public works departments already are seeing impacts.

McKibben notes people may have to move out of steep valley areas because of increasing flooding.

“We’ve seen a big, big increase in rain events,” said McKibben, adding area public works departments are starting to install bigger culverts to handle runoff. “We saw that most vividly in the Adirondacks with Hurricane Irene.”

Irene caused widespread damage throughout the region, upending businesses, homes and even a firehouse, as well as washing out Route 73. Some of the effects from that 2011 storm linger to this day.

Whither the Adirondacks? There is an argument that the 6-million acre state park’s sheer size offers some buffer, some ability to mitigate and incorporate the effects of climate change.

“There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic that the Adirondacks can be somewhat resistant to climate change,” Beier said.

 
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