The National Climate Assessment — What does it mean for the North Country?

The 800-page 2014 National Climate Assessment, which involved more than 300 scientists, engineers and technical experts, was released last month, confirming that climate change is an existing threat. The report accepted that many global climate change predictions made a decade ago are “happening now,” as one co-author on the report’s chapter on the 12 northeastern states puts it.

That person is David Wolfe, a professor of horticulture and chair of the climate change focus group at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell University, who has been studying the impacts of climate change on plants, soils and ecosystems for 20 years. He recently told interviewers that, “a lot has changed since the U.S. government released their last report, in 2008.” He has also said that throughout his years of research, two things in particular have surprised him: the accelerating pace of the changes and the continued reluctance of policymakers to move to slow them down. This report, he recently told interviewers, signals that the country is “beginning to move beyond the debate about whether climate change is real or not, and really getting down to rolling up our sleeves.” He calls the assessment an “essential science-based resource,” and says that “the impacts (of climate change) are being felt more locally.”

The report, which is the government’s latest assessment of climate change, states that on average, temperatures in the U.S. have risen by roughly 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1895, with 80 percent of that change occurring since the early 1980s. Wolfe and his colleagues also found that annual rainfall in the Northeast has increased by 5 inches since 1900, with coastal sea level rising by nearly 1 foot. During that time, temperatures have risen as well, by nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit.

In recent decades, climate change has been connected to intensifying severity of heat waves, increasing precipitation, growing numbers of torrential downpours, more and more violent weather, sea level rise and greater occurrence of flooding and storm surge, all of which have had noticeable impacts on our region. The report affirms that flooding has caused billions of dollars in damage and emphasizes that things could get much worse as seas are projected to rise 1 to 4 feet by the end of this century. It hypothesizes that “heat waves, coastal flooding and river flooding will pose a growing challenge to the region’s environmental, social and economic systems,” and goes on to say that “this will increase the vulnerability of the region’s residents, especially its most disadvantaged populations.”

I find the outlook extremely disturbing and can’t help but recall how, in 2012, Superstorm Sandy plowed into New York City, causing an unprecedented 13-foot surge of seawater, which flooded tunnels and subway stations and forced New York City’s main utility to cut power to 6,500 customers in lower Manhattan, stopping U.S. stock trading for two consecutive days for the first time since 1888.

Nor can I forget how, just over one year earlier, Hurricane Irene devastated much of our region with powerful winds and driving rains that forced creeks and rivers over their banks. Flooding washed out several roads, leaving individual households and whole communities stranded by high water, debris, and mud. State Route 73 was so extensively damaged that the communities of Keene, Keene Valley, Jay, and Upper Jay were effectively left isolated. A number of the roads that serve Lake Placid and Wilmington were closed as well, as extremely high winds felled trees and collapsed power and telephone lines and flooding weakened bridge structures and eroded roadbeds away. Emergency radio systems were off the air as the fire station in Keene was literally swept away by the Gulf Brook, which had been transformed into a wild, raging river.

Erosion and blowdown in the High Peaks backcountry were extensive. A few trails still remain closed, while detours and challenging conditions still exist along several others. A favorite destination of hikers and campers, the bridge over Marcy Dam – along the Van Hoevenberg Trail, the most popular route up Mount Marcy, the state’s highest summit – was completely washed away. Damage to the iconic, wooden Marcy Dam resulted in the pond being drained and was so severe that the state Department of Environmental Conservation elected to dismantle rather than rebuild it. The Adirondack Mountain Club’s professional trail crew has since built a new bridge across Marcy Brook, a short distance downriver from the original site.

Among the other current and future impacts the report says are affecting our region and the greater northeastern U.S. are:

an increased number of extreme heat events, especially in cities with high concentrations of ground-level ozone, which will most likely result in greater numbers of heat-related deaths, especially among the young, elderly and infirm

increased potency of plant allergens

more widespread occurrence of diseases linked to ticks, mosquitoes and other insects.

Agriculture is being profoundly impacted, too. In 2012, many New York apple growers lost large percentages of their crops after trees, which bloomed weeks and in some cases months earlier than usual, were hit by a late spring freeze. Last year, at least one-third, and by some estimates one-half of the European varieties of grapevines in New York state were damaged by fluctuations in weather, with several producers losing their entire crop.

The report states as well that populations of destructive insects are on the rise, as generally milder winters make it easier for them to survive and expand their ranges. It also mentions that precipitation, although predicted to be heavier in winter and spring, is expected to be less in summer and fall, resulting in more droughts during the growing season, and adds that, since 1958, the Northeast has seen a 71 percent increase in what are classified as “very heavy” storms.

And one last thought: Cornell University researchers, in a recent, unrelated report, stated that in the Northeast, days with at least 2 inches of rainfall have increased from just one annually in the 1950s to more than six since the start of this decade.