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Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, December 8, 2011
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
With the goal of creating “a more climate resilient” state, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority released a 600-page report last month that models climate change for the next half-century.
“New York State is highly diverse, with simultaneous and intersecting challenges and opportunities,” concludes a companion 58-page synthesis report, “Responding to Climate Change in New York State.”
It goes on, “The success of the state’s response will depend on developing effective adaptation strategies by connecting climate change with ongoing proactive policy and management initiatives. Climate change will bring opportunities as well as constraints, and interactions of climate change with other stresses, such as increased resource demand, will create new challenges.”
Research scientists from Columbia University, The City University of New York, and Cornell University undertook the three-year study.
ClimAID, as it is called, is to “provide decision-makers with cutting-edge information on the state’s vulnerability to climate change and to facilitate the development of adaptation strategies informed by both local experience and scientific knowledge.”
The report notes that some extreme weather has already increased in frequency and intensity, affecting some aspects of society, the economy, and natural ecosystems and increases are expected.
“Not all of these changes will be gradual,” it says. “When certain tipping points are crossed, impacts can increase dramatically. Past climate is no longer a reliable guide to the future.”
Heat waves are to become more frequent and intense, the report says, increasing heat-related illness and death, and creating new challenges for the energy system, air quality, and agriculture.
Heavy downpours are also increasing and are expected to further increase, leading to flooding and affecting water quality, infrastructure, and agriculture. Likewise, summer drought is expected to increase.
While coastal flooding due to a rise in sea level will put lives and property at risk, climate change may create a longer, warmer growing season and the potential for abundant water resources, the report says. Also, major changes to ecosystems are expected, including species range shifts and population crashes.
ClimAID defines seven regions in the state. Albany County is in the southernmost part of the Adirondack Mountains region, bordering the East Hudson and Mohawk River Valleys region. For the Adirondacks, the baseline temperature is 42 degrees, which is projected to rise 3 to 5.5 degrees by the 2050s, and 4 to 9 degrees by the 2080s. The baseline for precipitation is 38 inches, which is expected to rise up to 5 percent by the 2050s and from 5 to 15 percent by the 2080s.
Adirondack milk production will decline, and high elevation plants, animals, and ecosystem types will be lost, the report says. While winter recreation will decline, summer opportunities will increase.
New York has more ski areas than any other state, the report says, hosting an average of 4 million visitors each year, contributing $1 billion to the state’s economy and employing 10,000 people. New York is also part of a six-state network of snowmobile trails, totaling over 40,000 miles and contributing $3 billion annually to the regional economy. “Shorter, warmer winters and reduced snowpack will have significant negative impacts on winter recreation in the state and region,” says ClimAID.
Vulnerable species and ecosystems include the Adirondacks’ spruce-fir forests; boreal and alpine tundra communities; hemlock forests; brook trout and other coldwater fish; snow-dependent species such as the snowshoe hare, voles, and other rodents and their winter predators such as the fox and bobcat; moose; bird species such as the Baltimore oriole and rose-breasted grosbeak; and amphibians and other wetland species.
Agriculture is sensitive to both climate change and the rising costs of energy. More than 34,000 farms occupy about a quarter of the state’s land more than 7.5 million acres and contribute $4.5 billion to New York’s economy each year. A large majority of New York farms are rain-fed without irrigation, but summer precipitation is currently not sufficient to fully meet crop water needs most years, the report says.
Opportunities for reducing greenhouse emissions on farms include improved manure management, generation of on-site energy, increasing the use of soil organic matter, and using nitrogen fertilizer more efficiently, the report says.
Cool-season crops like apples, potatoes, and cabbage and dairy milk production are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Heat stress affects both the health and performance of dairy cattle, the report says, and, by the 2080s, the decline of milk production in New York due to heat stress is expected to increase six-fold from now.
The East Hudson and Mohawk river valleys can expect a saltwater front moving further up the Hudson River, potential contamination of New York City’s back-up water supply, propagation of storm surges up the Hudson from the coast, and a decline in popular apple varieties.
New York City and Long Island, with the highest population density in the state, face the greatest challenges with the sea level rising, which will increase flooding, erosion, and loss of wetlands. There will also be challenges to the water supply and to wastewater treatment. Heat-related deaths are expected to increase as are illnesses related to air quality.
Projections on sea levels in the report do not include significant melting of the polar ice sheets, which, ClimAID notes, is already observed to be occurring. ClimAID projects 1 to 5 inches of rise by the 2020s, five to 12 inches by the 2050s, and 8 to 23 inches by the 2080s. If rapid melting of the polar ice were included, the level by the 2080s would rise 37 to 55 inches.
Since 1900, sea level along New York’s coastline has risen about one foot, the report says.
ClimAID notes that New York’s coastal zones are becoming more developed, further increasing the consequences of flooding, coastal erosion, and sea level rise. More than a half-million people live within the 100-year coastal floodplain in New York State, the report says.
High water levels, strong winds, and heavy rain resulting from severe coastal storms already cause billions of dollars in damage and disrupt transportation and power systems, the report says. More frequent and extensive coastal flooding is projected.
Some marine species, like lobsters, are already moving north, out of New York, while other species, like the blue claw crab, are increasing in the warmer waters.
Adapting to reduce impacts
The report goes over the interaction between adaptation (such as using reflective roofing materials to keep a building cooler in the summer) and mitigation (such as reducing energy use to reduce heat-trapping emissions). Some adaptations, like using air-conditioning to deal with higher temperatures, increase emissions.
“Our choices can make us more or less vulnerable to climate change,” says the report. “For example, building in coastal zones and river flood plains and paving over large amounts of land make us more vulnerable to flooding and inundation due to sea level rise and increasing heavy downpours.”
The report outlines a wide variety of adaptations that can reduce impacts. For example, with infrastructure, it recommends regulations that govern bridge height and clearance, dam height and strength, materials used, dimensions of drainage culverts for roads, roof strength, and foundation depth should be reconsidered.
And for ecosystems, controlling sprawl and other habitat destruction, and providing dispersal corridors to allow species range shifts in response to climate change is recommended.
Climate change and adaptation policies can worsen existing inequalities and can also “create new patterns of winners and losers,” the report says. It goes on to say that “future generations will suffer the consequences of past and current generations’ actions.”
Rural areas, especially small towns, are more vulnerable to extreme events like floods, droughts, and ice storms and they have less capacity to cope with such climate stressors, the report says. Also, areas that depend on agriculture and tourism like fishing, skiing, and snowmobiling may be particularly in need of adaptation assistance.
As for groups of people, the elderly, disabled, and those with health problems are more vulnerable to climate hazards, including floods and heat waves, the report points out. Also, low-income groups have limited ability to meet higher energy costs, making them more vulnerable to the effects of heat waves, the report points out. Farm workers may be exposed to more chemicals if pesticide use increases because of climate change, and asthma sufferers will be more vulnerable to the decline in air quality during heat waves.
Also, the report notes, smaller businesses are less able to cope with climate-related stresses than larger businesses, and they have less capital to make investments to promote adaptation, such as the use of snowmaking in ski areas, or adoption of new crops or techniques on small farms.
“Affected communities and populations should have a voice in the adaptation policy process,” says ClimAID.
ClimAID notes that rising air temperatures intensify the water cycle, driving increased evaporation and precipitation. This results in heavier rains, often with longer dry periods in between, which can affect water sources in a variety of ways.
The report describes these key climate impacts:
Heavy downpours have increased over the last half-century and this trend is projected to continue, causing more localized flash flooding in urban areas and hilly regions;
Flooding has the potential to increase pollutants in the water supply and inundate wastewater treatment plants and other vulnerable development within floodplains;
Less frequent summer rainfall is expected to result in additional, and possible longer, summer dry periods, which may mean water supply systems can’t meet demands;
Reduced summer flows on large rivers and lowered groundwater tables could lead to conflicts among competing water users; and
Increasing water temperatures in rivers and streams will affect aquatic health and reduce the capacity of streams to assimilate effluent from wastewater treatment plants.
The report notes that smaller water systems are more vulnerable to drought and other types of water supply disruptions than larger systems.
It also notes that flooding is already a major problem across New York State with damages costing an average of $50 million each year. It states that several flood management strategies can help solve current problems while addressing possible future ones.
Major shifts in ecosystems are likely to occur in the next several decades; for example, spruce-fir forests, alpine tundra, and boreal plant communities will be lost. Some invasive species, like kudzu, an aggressive weed, may thrive.
“Ecosystems purify air and water and provide flood control,” says the report. “They supply us with products like food and timber, and sequester carbon and build soil…Human disruption of ecosystems, through climate change and other factors such as habitat destruction and pollution, can reduce ecosystems’ ability to provide us with these valuable services.”
On energy use, more frequent heat waves will cause more use of air-conditioning, stressing power supplies, the report says; coastal infrastructure is vulnerable to flooding as hydropower is to summer drought and as distribution lines are to extreme weather events. On the up side, higher winter temperatures are expected to decrease winter heating demands.
Increasing energy efficiency, ClimAID says, can help people adapt to higher temperatures while reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to mitigate climate change.
The report also makes recommendations on transportation and telecommunications in light of climate change.
Demand for health services and the need for public health surveillance and monitoring will increase as the climate continues to change, says ClimAID.
Adaptation strategies that make the most of co-benefits, like cleaner air, improved nutrition, or increased physical activity, should be given priority, ClimAID says. “Investing in structural adaptations to reduce heat vulnerability,” the report says, “including tree planting, green roofs, and high-reflectivity building materials, will help to reduce energy demand and expense while reducing heat-related risks.”
The report concludes with recommendations aimed at statewide decision-makers as well as recommendations for science and research.