SARANAC LAKE - The climate of the Adirondacks is getting warmer and wetter, and the Park and its communities will likely experience more extreme weather events in the years to come.
That's what Paul Smith's College professor and paleoclimatologist Curt Stager told state Adirondack Park Agency commissioners last week during a panel discussion on climate change. The session was hosted by the agency's Public Awareness and Communications Committee.
Corrie Miller, right, director of the AuSable River Association, speaks Thursday during a state Adirondack Park Agency discussion on climate change. Stephanie Ratcliffe, left, director of The Wild Center, and Paul Smith’s College professor Curt Stager also made presentations to the agency’s commissioners.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
Stager said he and Saranac Lake journalist Mary Thill studied weather data from the Lake Champlain basin as part of a 2010 report for The Nature Conservancy. They found that from 1976 to 2005, mean average temperatures in the basin rose by 2 degrees, slightly faster than the global average, Stager said. The warming was even more pronounced in the fall, when average temperatures climbed 3.6 degrees.
"So, the warming is also happening here," Stager said. "We know now because of our local weather records that yes, indeed it is happening here, pretty much like on the planet as a whole."
It's more difficult to forecast precipitation trends, Stager said. He said he combined precipitation forecasts from 16 "reputable" global climate models that focused on the Adirondack-Champlain region. The results were "kind of a scattershot," Stager said.
"Most of them predict it's going to get wetter, and that makes sense," he said. "In a warmer world, more water is evaporating out of the oceans into the air, so when you get a chance for precipitation, you probably get more."
However, a few of the precipitation models say the opposite, that the region could get more droughts. Nevertheless, Stager said historic records point to increasing amounts of precipitation in the region.
"It's been warming over the past century here, and it has gotten wetter here, not in direct correlation to the warming trend, but when you look at rainfall records like river runoff and the level of Lake Champlain," Stager said. "There was a jump in how much precipitation we're getting through the year around 1970, about 3 inches higher on average for average annual rainfall. We do know there is a trend favoring the models suggesting a wetter future."
Based on both common sense and evidence from climate models, Stager said a warmer climate with more moisture makes the atmosphere more turbulent, leading to more extreme weather and rainfall events.
In the North Country, there's evidence of that happening, he said. Stager studied daily rainfall records from weather stations over the past century and found "extreme rainfall events" of 2 inches of rain or more are becoming more common.
"That's the picture," he said. "It's definitely warming. We're not sure of exactly what precipitation is going to do, but we can expect it to change. And looking at the past 100 years, we can anticipate probably wetter, maybe some droughts, especially in the summer, and expect more extreme events, and expect the extremes to be more extreme. We've seen that before our eyes in the last two years."
Stager outlined how these climate forecasts, should they become reality, could affect life in the North Country. There are pros and cons, he explained.
"What does a warmer world mean to us here?" he asked. "It's going to mean my heating bills are going to go down - that could well be. You could also save money on road salt. On the other hand, if you like winter sports, it's kind of hard to run a bobsled without any snow on the tracks."
People should also expect lakes in the Adirondacks to freeze over less frequently, impacting winter recreation like ice fishing. That's already happening, Stager said, pointing to historical records that show there were only three winters in the entire 19th century when Lake Champlain didn't completely freeze over. Now the lake rarely freezes fully during the winter.
If winter is going to be warmer, Stager said to expect more rain rather than snow. While skiers and snowboarders won't be happy with that, one positive is there would be less snow to melt in the spring and potentially cause flooding, like the region saw in the spring of 2011.
Water-quality problems could also result from increasing amounts of erosion and nutrients ending up in lakes, and the region may see more invasive species that prefer a warmer climate moving in, Stager said.
Some things that could be done to prepare for these trends, Stager said, include building bridges, roads, barriers and culverts to accommodate a higher volume of water. When extreme weather events happen, he also said it's important to record where the damage takes place and where there is a potential for damage, such as mapping areas on Lake Champlain that get flooded when the lake level rises.
"When you're planning your future budgets, don't forget to factor in the weather is changing," Stager said. "We need to be ready for additional costs that we didn't used to have to deal with very often. Also remember, when we have people living on or roads built on flood plains, they're called a flood plain for a reason. We need to be aware that a lot of our people and infrastructure is in very vulnerable places."
Two other people spoke on climate change Thursday. Corrie Miller, director of the AuSable River Association, outlined her group's effort to promote construction of culverts that don't create barriers for fish and are large enough to survive big flood events, like when Tropical Storm Irene hit the region in late August 2011.
"If you are able to install a larger culvert, then you will have an economic benefit over time, you'll have a public safety benefit, you'll have the trout and the aquatic organism environmental benefit, and everybody's happy," Miller said. "And it makes the community more resilient in the face of climate change."
Bigger culverts cost more money, as much as $150,000 versus a more typical $40,000 culvert, but they last longer and require less maintenance, Miller said.
Earlier in the meeting, Wild Center Director Stephanie Ratcliffe spoke to the committee about the Adirondack Climate and Energy Action Plan, the museum's climate change education effort. That includes a movie that's now being produced about Irene and its impact on the Adirondacks, a meeting the Wild Center hosted for municipal leaders on climate adaptation strategies, putting on green building trade shows for contractors and events like the fourth annual Adirondack Youth Climate Summit, which was held at The Wild Center the same day as Thursday's meeting.
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.