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Temperatures they are a-changin’

Jenkins’ book outlines trends and possible solutions for Adirondackers

September 4, 2010
By MIKE LYNCH, Enterprise Outdoors Writer

If current climate trends continue, the Adirondacks will become a vastly different place in the coming decades, according to the recently released book, "Climate Change in the Adirondacks" written by Wildlife Conservation Society ecologist Jerry Jenkins.

Winter tourism such as snowmobiling and skiing could be less possible because of declining snowfalls, boreal species such as moose and pine martens could move north because of increased temperatures and alpine vegetation atop many of the High Peaks could disappear.

In his lifetime, Jenkins said he has already noticed many changes.

Article Photos

Without consistent cold temperatures, ice climbing is not possible.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)

"The most obvious changes are the changes in timing of things," Jenkins said in a recent interview with the Enterprise. "This was one of the warmest springs we've ever had. By the first of May, many plants and animals were in two weeks, in some cases three weeks earlier ... than what I would have thought reasonable 20 years ago."

Climate scientists believe that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, caused by burning fossil fuels, is the reason for the increases in temperature and many of the other major changes that are currently occurring in the environment.

Jenkins contemplates the carbon emissions in a section titled, "How high could carbon dioxide rise?" Here's an excerpt:

It depends on how much fossil fuel we burn. Currently carbon dioxide concentrations are about 387 parts per million (ppm). If we burn all the conventional reserves of fossil fuels, we will get over 700 ppm of carbon dioxide. If we burn all the unconventional reserves, we will get over 1,100 ppm.

These are large numbers. As we will see in a moment, if we wish to avoid ecologically dangerous climate change, we will probably need to keep carbon dioxide concentrations below 500 ppm.

To stabilize the carbon dioxide concentration, we have to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions to near zero. How fast we do this will determine how soon the concentration stabilizes and what level it stabilizes at.

The book provides three scenarios that could play out regarding carbon emissions in the atmosphere. The first predicts that if carbon emissions were reduced by 30 percent by 2050, the amount in the atmosphere would eventually stabilize at 450 ppm. This would mean a final temperature rise of 6 to 14 degrees.

The second would be if carbon stabilizes at 550 ppm, which means reducing emissions starting in 2040. That would mean increases in temperature of 8 to 18 degrees.

The third scenario is if the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stabilized at 750 ppm, which would occur if we started reductions by 2075. In this case, the temperature would rise by 12 to 25 degrees.

A warming of 5 degrees would give the Adirondacks a climate like West Virginia, according to the book. A warming of 10 degrees would give this region a climate like highland North Carolina. A warming of 15 to 20 degrees would give the Adirondacks a climate like highland Georgia or the Gulf coastal plain.

The books says that predicting the exact changes to the environment isn't possible, but drastic change would occur.

"Neither Adirondack biology nor Adirondack culture will survive the kind of climate changes," Jenkins writes. "In climates 5 degrees warmer than ours, there are no big bogs, or spruce-fir forests, or mountains with continuous snow cover. Loons and tamaracks and martens are gone. Sugar maple and snowshoe hare are at the edge of their range, and only found in the mountains. Snowmobiling and skiing are limited, and snowshoeing and winter climbing almost nonexistent."

With such drastic change apparently in the near future, what does Jenkins suggest people do?

He thinks people should start to make changes in their own lives. Insulate the house better so that heating appliances burn only what they need. Buy fuel-efficient cars. Jenkins doesn't suggest waiting for federal and international governments to pass regulations to make changes.

"Eventually, if the problem does get solved it will be through a lot of individual action, too," Jenkins told the Enterprise. "Government is not going to send the troops to rip insulation out of this building and reinsulate this building. We're going to do it if it gets done at all."

A large part of the book is dedicated to how individuals can make improvements in their own lives to become more energy efficient because the problem at its heart is really an energy problem, according to the book. Energy used in driving cars and heating homes.

"The size of houses is directly related to their energy consumption," Jenkins writes. "Houses lose energy through their surfaces. Since the surface area is roughly proportional to the floor space, a house that has twice as much floor space will use approximately twice as much energy.

"The size of houses has long been a measure of the wealth of their occupants, and as America has become more weathy, its houses have become larger. The three-bedroom house that I grew up in the 1950s was under 1,000 square feet. By 1975 the average new house in the Northeast was over 1,600 feet. By 2005, it was over 2,500 square feet, more than 50 percent larger."

The obvious solution to this energy problem, according to this book? Live in a small house and don't heat parts of it in the colder months. This would save money and energy.

Local citizens and communities can make a direct and tangible difference on energy consumption, Jenkins writes.

The book says that, with serious effort, the Adirondacks can be energy independent in 20 years. This shift would have major impacts on both the region's energy footprint and on its local economy, since the region is currently economically dependent on outside sources of fuel for heating, transportation and power.

Jenkins outlines the steps that individuals and communities can take to move toward energy independence. Many of these changes are already cost-effective, and others could pay themselves back in five or 10 years with an improved policy structure.

"There are plenty of people around who are prepared to tell you that climate change is nonsense and carbon doesn't matter," he said. "There are far fewer who will tell you that paying $12,000 to drive 100,000 miles is better than paying $6,000. Once people realize they are saving serious money with renewables, they are excited to make the switch."

Released by the Wildlife Conservation Society and Cornell University Press, this publication is available in local bookstores, including at The Wild Center.



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