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Experts: Oswego County could be ground zero for climate change harm

Oswego's famous winters could be blunted by impending climate change, experts say. Credit: Oswego County News Now

OSWEGO — Scientists say warmer temperatures and heavier rainfall could be coming to the region sooner than previously thought and without significant investment in mitigation and precautionary measures, the area could be caught “flatfooted.”

The Fourth National Climate Assessment, released late last year by federal officials, describes the future climate of the Northeast region of the United States as one with increased rainfall intensity and escalating average temperatures.

Scientists warn the changing climate could have a dramatic effect on agriculture and recreation and note significant preventative measures and improvements to infrastructure are needed.

Cornell University Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Professor Art DeGaetano said in many cases what the national climate assessment says for the Northeast region could be an indication of what central New York or the Great Lakes Region should expect to experience in the coming years.

“The values for the Northeast in terms of the change in temperature or the change in rainfall would pretty much hold for central New York or Oswego,” DeGaetano said.

Increased total precipitation is expected during the winter and spring, though scientists anticipate precipitation would remain steady in the summer months. Overall, monthly precipitation in the Northeast is projected to be roughly an inch higher for December through April by the end of the century.

SUNY Oswego Assistant Professor of Climatology Michael Veres says the report was a reinforcement of what scientists have been saying for years but noted the 2018 report focused on some of the environmental and societal implications rather than just the raw data.

Though there will be heavier rainstorms, Veres said there may be fewer rain events and the Northeast would have longer stretches without rain. Local infrastructure likely would not be able to handle some of those events, which Veres said would “overwhelm the sewer systems.”

“There will be more rain, but less of it actually useful to us,” he said, as much of the rain would be lost through runoff during high-intensity rain events.

DeGaetano said for New York, average rainfall is roughly 40 inches annually, but that number is expected to rise by less than 10 percent over the next 50 to 100 years.

“Instead of getting 40 inches in a year, maybe we’ll see 45 inches in a year,” he said. “That doesn’t sound like a big change, but what’s also going to change is the character in how that precipitation comes.”

The number of days with rain events is expected to decrease as total precipitation rises, DeGaetano said, adding “our infrastructure isn’t designed to handle those big events” and a significantly longer period is expected between rainfall events.

“Not only do we have to worry about more heavy rainfall events but we will have to worry about more short-term drought periods, particularly in the summertime,” DeGaetano said, adding that when the ground is dry, it can’t absorb water as well and the amount of runoff increases and causes more flooding.

In the short-term, the same could be applied to snowfall events but in the long-term, less snow is anticipated as winter could largely gradually reach a point where it would not be cold enough to support significant snow events.

“In the current climate in the next few years it’s still going to be cold enough to get snow events in the winter time,” DeGaetano said. “As we move later and later into the century, however, that kind of falls apart because just the chances of it being cold enough to have snow in the wintertime sort of goes away.”

Warming temperatures are likely to condense the four full seasons experienced in the Northeast to something like three and a half seasons, Veres said, adding “winter is going to be less of a thing.”

The seasons won’t disappear but would melt into one another or shift in time.

“What we consider the cold — the winter — gets narrower and narrower, and what we consider the summer gets wider and wider,” DeGaetano said.

Scientists believe the length of time between the last spring freeze and the first fall freeze could be extended by as much as two weeks by the middle of the century and as many as 30 days in the final decades of the century.

Studies suggest the changing Northeast environment could benefit the agricultural industry for the next 50 years but with excess moisture already a leading cause of crop loss in the region, it’s unclear how the industry could be impacted long-term.

Warming temperatures could extend the local growing season but may create a longer and less healthy season for local crops. Veres said warming could result in earlier blooming for vegetation but at the same time the threat of a frost would still be present.

DeGaetano said that could have a significant impact on agriculture, because “there’s always that chance that you have that one or two cold nights,” which could damage and kill crops.

According to the federal report, the Northeast is projected to warm by 3.6 degrees by 2035. The elevated temperatures are expected to be the largest increase in the U.S. and occur as much as two decades before global temperatures reach a similar milestone.

Annual average temperature in the contiguous U.S. has increased by 1.2 degrees over the last few decades, according to the report, which notes recent decades are the warmest in at least the past 1,500 years. Average temperatures across the country are expected to rise by another 2.5 degrees in the next few decades regardless of future greenhouse gas emissions.

By 2050, average annual temperatures in the Northeast are expected to increase by 4 to 5 degrees, with a higher number of extreme heat events occurring in the region each year.

“The entire Northeast is warming at a faster rate than anywhere else in the country,” Veres said. “Potentially during the fall it’s going to take a while longer before it gets cold and in the spring temperatures would be warming faster.”

Local National Weather Service (NWS) observer Bill Gregway, while noting he’s not a trained climatologist, said he’s noticed trends in the weather over his 50 years collecting data.

“It’s hard to pin it down, but back in the 60s and 70s we had our greatest snowfalls and lately they’ve come down a little bit,” he said.

There’s definitely been a pattern of warming weather, Gregway said, noting the most temperatures tend to hover near or above average as time progresses with few coming in below the norm.

“We’re definitely in a change toward a warmer trend,” he said. “I’ve noticed all the average temperatures now are pretty close to average or above average.”

With warming winters, less early snowfall and earlier thaws, scientists say the proportion of winter precipitation falling as rain has already increased and the trend is likely to continue.

The amount of snow and the duration of which central New York is covered in snow has decreased significantly in recent decades. In some areas the number of days with snow on the ground has decreased as much as 30 days in the last 50 years.

Warmer water temperatures in the Great Lakes can be expected, DeGaetano said, adding that could actually increase lake effect snow in the short-term but long-term as temperatures continue to rise snowfall is expected to decrease.

“Climate change and global warming doesn’t mean it’s never going to be cold,” DeGaetano said. “It’s really the longer-term change and within that longer-term change there are going to be periods of time — months, days and even years — that are cold… but the trend will be as time goes on to have less and less of those cold periods.”

The impact of shorter winters with less snowfall and snowpack could be devastating to certain winter recreation in the Northeast, according to the report, which notes winter recreation in the region is a more than $2.5 billion industry that provides nearly 50,000 jobs.

The report warns that increasing temperatures could lead to higher risk of illness and death, saying the projected hike in temperatures is expected to lead to “substantially more premature deaths, hospital admissions and emergency department visits due to heat” in the region. Under the projected temperature increase, the report states the Northeast could expect 650 more “excess” deaths per year by 2050 and 960 to 2,300 more excess deaths by 2090.

In addition to the health impacts on humans, ecologists and biologists warn climate change could have a dramatic impact on biodiversity and wildlife across the globe.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in a statement said the service “faces what portends to be the greatest challenge to fish and wildlife conservation in its history” at the dawn of the 21st century.

“The Earth’s climate is changing at an accelerating rate that has the potential to cause abrupt changes in ecosystems and contribute to widespread species extinctions,” the FWS says. “In truth, these changes will adversely affect local, state, tribal, regional, national and international economies and cultures; and will diminish the goods, services, and social benefits natural systems provide to people across the globe.”

Dee Blanton, a wildlife biologist in the FWS Division of Wildlife and Sportfish Restoration, said each state in the country put together a comprehensive plan in 2005 and again in 2015 that looked at all species of wildlife in the state and threats to their existence.

“Of those species of the greatest conservation needs, something the states have identified as a particular threat is changes in our climate,” Blanton said. “It is a threat that magnifies the other threats — things like dramatic extreme storm events and those can definitely have a direct impact on wildlife.”

Scientists say the risks associated with present-day and projected future heat could be minimized by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, minimizing exposure through urban design or increasing individual and community resilience.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) said the recent report “details the catastrophic consequences of climate change and provides compelling evidence of the accelerated pace of severe economic and environmental impacts associated with rising waters and a warming planet.”

In a statement, the DEC called New York “a national leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change,” and said the state is making significant investments in electric-vehicle infrastructure and advancing a forward-thinking agenda focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and growing a green economy rooted in sustainability.

Gov. David Paterson issued an executive order in 2009 to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent — compared to 1990 figures — by 2050. The DEC is in the process of finishing a long-term climate action plan, which was also a requirement set forth in Paterson’s executive order.

Veres noted the 2018 climate assessment didn’t pay close attention to the best-case scenarios and focused largely on the intermediate and worst-case predictions.

“That kind of shows you where things are,” Veres said. “It’s less about stopping (climate change) and more about how we can reduce the damages.”

In terms of the local impacts on the city of Oswego and the surrounding area, Veres noted there is “a lot of vulnerability.” The infrastructure in the city has largely gone unchanged for nearly a century, he said, and there are some major concerns in how the area is prepared to handle a changing environment.

“The climate is changing. We don’t know how big or how bad it’s going to be, but the fact of the matter is it will be warming,” Veres said. “If you make no changes, Oswego is going to be caught flatfooted.”

Mitigation efforts to limit the damage and impact of future flooding and warming is an expensive endeavor, Veres said, but it’s likely to be more expensive to take no precautions and repair damage after it happens.

DeGaetano said there have been some significant adaptations and technological developments made in recent years to deal with a changing climate, but not enough progress has been made in terms of large infrastructure.

“The bigger infrastructure, if you’re starting to talk about seawalls along the lake or flooding concerns because culverts and drainage systems aren’t big enough — that’s where it becomes more costly,” he said. “And I would say there we’re not moving as quickly as we need to.”

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