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Climate change named No. 2 environmental threat to Adirondacks

December 28, 2018
By GRIFFIN KELLY - Staff Writer (gkelly@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Lake Placid News

Planet Earth is located in the habitable zone, an area just the right amount of distance from the sun so that it's not too hot or too cold.

It's the area in a solar system where life is possible to not only exist but thrive. However, man-made issues on Earth are threatening that ability to thrive.

Temperatures are getting higher, water levels are rising, storms can be devastating and certain plants and animals are going extinct.

Article Photos

Greg Borzilleri of Lake Placid paddleboards on Mirror Lake in Dec. 23, 2015. It was an exceptionally warm start to the winter of 2015-2016.
(News photo — Antonio Olivero)

The Lake Placid News recently polled environmental groups and colleges in the region and state agencies about the top five environmental threats to the Adirondack Park. No. 2 was climate change.

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What is it?

Climate change encompasses a lot, but simply, it's the state of the Earth and its weather patterns caused by the build-up of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels. A now-less-used phrase for this phenomenon is "global warming," which relates more to rising Earth surface temperatures. While that's a large competent, climate change is the overall view of the changing weather, environments, humidity and precipitation.

Climate change is the product of the greenhouse effect. The Earth's surface and atmosphere can reflect some solar radiation, but a lot also gets absorbed by greenhouse gases, thus increasing the overall temperature of the planet and affecting weather patterns. Venus, for example, is naturally full of carbon dioxide, making it the hottest planet in the solar system despite being farther away from the Sun than Mercury. It also has crazy wind storms, plenty of lightning and sulfuric acid rain at higher elevations.

Earth is nowhere near the instantly deadly environment of Venus, nor will it be in any foreseeable future, but it doesn't mean there isn't cause for concern. Paul Smith's College biology professor Curt Stager - a paleo-climatologist who is the author of "Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth" and co-author of The Nature Conservancy's "Climate Change in the Champlain Basin" with Mary Thill - said climate change is subtle but noticeable over decades of data.

"It's like an oil tanker," he said, "slow but massive and hard to stop.

"It's not like climate change is wiping out life in the next 12 years. Except for the occasional big storm, it's subtle. In the coming decades, people will be born into a world with warmer, wetter weather and more storms. Most scientists say by mid-century, the planet will be recognizably different."

When polled, both the state Adirondack Park Agency and Department of Environmental Conservation put climate change as its their top environmental threat to the Adirondacks. DEC Public Information Officer Lori Severino said the department placed it at the top because while things like "acid rain, and most environmental hazards are relatively local in nature, climate change is a global phenomenon that exacerbates almost all environmental hazards, which is why the Department of Defense refers to climate change as a 'threat multiplier.'"

Adirondack Wild, an advocacy group for protecting the Forest Preserve, ranked climate change as one of its top five environmental threats. Managing Partner David Gibson said climate change is the overarching threat to the entire globe, specifically northern areas.

"In areas like the Adirondacks that rely on heavy winters for economy and ecology," Gibson said, "we're seeing less snowfall and fewer ice-overs on lakes. It affects the lives of natural and human communities in a very dramatic way, even it's subtle at first. It might be a slightly shorter ski season, or there are fewer areas to ice fish, but it builds up over time."

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Ice, ice, baby

One of the main ways scientists in the Adirondacks have tracked climate change is by recording when lakes freeze over.

"As the planet warms up, the Adirondacks have been warming with it," Stager said. "The ice seasons on lakes have been shortening at both ends. We know that because ice records for Lake Champlain go back 200 years."

In the 2010 "Climate Change in the Champlain Basin" report, Stager said many lakes in the Northeast have less ice cover in winter than they once did, most likely due to warming.

"On average," the report states, "the main body of (Lake Champlain, which is between New York and Vermont) now freezes roughly two weeks later than it did during the early 1800s and about nine days later on average than in 1900-when it freezes over at all. The main lake remained open (not fully frozen) in winter only three times during the 19th century, but it did so 18 times between 1970 and 2007."

Stager said when he moved to the North Country in the 1980s, he would see ice fishing shanty towns built on Lake Champlain. As the temperatures warmed up over the years, sometimes ice jams would occur and emergency services would be called to save fishermen.

Shorter ice seasons can also be seen on Mirror Lake in the village of Lake Placid. The Ironman triathlon swim is there. It contains the public beach. The toboggan chute runs onto the surface in the winter. You can skate and take dogsled rides across the ice. You can still drive a car on Mirror Lake in the middle of winter, but the ice season is also getting shorter. Stager's report states the ice-up is occurring generally 12 days later now than when it did in the early 1900s. Data collected by the AuSable River Association backs up these findings. Lake George is also freezing a week later than it did at the turn of the 20th century. Ice thaws are still about the same time for both lakes.

According to data from the DEC's report "Assessing the Vulnerability of Key Habitats in New York: A Foundation for Climate Adaptation Planning," the world on average has raised 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit in the 20th century, but the northeastern U.S. has raised 1.4 degrees, meaning this area is warming more rapidly than others.

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Weather changes

In late August 2011, Tropical Storm Irene hit the Adirondacks, and it decimated some areas of Essex County, particularly in the town of Keene. The AuSable River - plus its east and west branches - overflowed, homes and businesses flooded and roadways were stripped right off the ground. That spring also saw a big flood in Saranac Lake - the biggest in more than 50 years. Those are products of climate change in northern areas - wetter climates and rising water levels.

"As far as we know, there's no clear pattern of hurricanes getting worse," Stager said, "but heavy rains, yes. If you look back at the past 100 years, we're getting more storms, and the storms are getting bigger. A thing like Irene hit us and then stood still over the funnel-like landscape of the mountains."

Storms like Irene are often called "100-year storms." It's a type storm that has a low probability of happening every year - about 1 percent. However, because storms are getting worse, what's considered a 100-year storm has to be recalculated.

"Our baseline infrastructure has to change because of it, and that means making higher, sturdier bridges and wider culverts every time a devastating storm hits," Stager said.

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Negatives on nature

Warmer temperatures year round and shorter ice seasons also have negative effects on animals and plant life, according to Stager.

"If you shorten the winter season, it means your lengthening the summer," he said. "That long stretch of warm weather can affect plankton growth and oxygen levels in the water. All the oxygen stays toward the top and doesn't get down to the bottom where lake trout live. Another possibility is if a body of water is too hot, it makes it harder for brook trout to reproduce."

In a 2011 report called "Vulnerability of At-risk Species to Climate Change in New York," the DEC and The Nature Conservancy collected data on how climate change affects animals. They labeled 17 species as "extremely vulnerable" and nine as "highly vulnerable." Twenty-four, or 89 percent, of the species are aquatic or closely associated with aquatic and seasonally wet habitats. The remaining three are butterflies that are poor dispersers and are dependent on a single food plant.

Some of the at-risk species typically found in the Adirondacks include the mink frog, spruce grouse, brook trout and the hellbender salamander.

Climate change doesn't just harm local flora and fauna; it could also invite dangerous species. As recent as the 1990s, the Adirondacks didn't have to worry much about blood-sucking, disease-spreading ticks. It was too cold for them to thrive. However, in a previous Adirondack Daily Enterprise article, Paul Smith's College Professor Lee Ann Sporn said climate change might be one reason for the appearance of deer ticks inside the Blue Line.

Deer ticks can carry Lyme disease, cause fever, chills, fatigue, body aches, headaches, neck stiffness, a rash and swollen lymph nodes.

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The economics

With the Adirondack Park containing more than 9,000 square miles of protected Forest Preserve, its main attraction is recreation. That includes activities such as hiking, skiing, snowboarding, rock climbing, ice climbing, snowshoeing and ice skating. Rising temperatures could create problems down the line for folks who wish to indulge their adventurous sides.

Jim McKenna is the president and CEO of the Lake Placid-based Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, the main tourism marketing firm for Essex, Franklin and Hamilton counties. He said despite Lake Placid being known as the home of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics and generally thought of as a winter destination, the village hits peak tourism during the summer months. Still, the winter months account for 30 percent of Lake Placid's tourist revenue from November to April.

"That's a pretty significant number," McKenna said.

Although tourism is ROOST's main focus, McKenna said the group supports climate change prevention and has engaged in eco-friendly promotions.

"We were talking about climate change in the early 2000s," McKenna said. "We used to have this deal that if people drove a hybrid or an electric car, they could stop into the Olympic Center and get a gold medal. We gave away quite a lot of medals back then."

As climate changes, the way outdoor businesses are run has to change, too.

Two of the more popular recreational attractions in the Adirondack Park are the Whiteface Mountain and Mount Van Hoevenberg Cross Country ski centers in Wilmington and Lake Placid, respectively. Both are operated by the state Olympic Regional Development Authority.

Whiteface has 25 miles of alpine trails with snowmaking capabilities all throughout. About every 100 feet or so, there are air and water lines that feed into snow guns. The water is pumped from the nearby West Branch of the AuSable River. The nordic center at Mount Van Hoevenberg doesn't have irrigation systems. Instead, it uses the Snow Factory, a heavy-duty snowmaking machine capable of converting 11 gallons of water into snow per minute. The snow - which can be made when the temperature is above freezing -is thrown into one pile and then trucked to the trails.

In a previous interview, Whiteface General Manager Aaron Kellet said sometimes the ski centers can't rely on Mother Nature to provide the mountains with enough snow, so they have to maintain their snowmaking operations. The man-made snow allows for a longer season at both ski centers.

ORDA is also making renovations to the Olympic Jumping Complex in Lake Placid. For years, the ski jumps haven't been up to international standards, part of the reason being the in-tracks don't have a cooling system, or ice tracks. They've traditionally relied on natural snowfall. In a previous interview, homegrown jumper, Olympic medalist and USA Nordic Executive Director Billy Demong said the tracks need to be cold and slick enough for jumpers to compete.

"On a snow track, if it becomes 50 degrees overnight or it rains," Demong said, "all that snow will melt. Ice tracks create a much more friction-free surface at a variety of temperatures, and there aren't as many varying snows or bumps."

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Politics

As far as solutions, Gibson and Adirondack Wild think awareness is paramount.

"I think bringing it to public attention is key," Gibson said. "We comment and testify on the issues such as the Boreas Ponds Tract. When evaluating the High Peaks or any surrounding area, we ask has the state factored in climate change on the trails that they're planning to build and maintain. We're always trying to challenge the DEC."

On the same note, Gibson said there is a lack of political will across the board to help the environment.

"I think the governor and the state are well aware of climate change, but they tend to respond in a reactive way; sometimes it's proactive, but not often. I think that consistency of knowledge is very, very critical. U.S. Congress has yet to take action on climate change in recent years. (U.S. Rep.) Elise Stefanik is key to this, as well as her colleagues and the Senate. While she's not a denier, she used to be a leader and more vocal. She's a young person who understands the threat. Many young people and New Yorkers are concerned by this. It's their world."

The League of Conservation Voters is a green group that rates U.S. representatives based on votes pertaining to bills that affect the environment. The LCV gave Stefanik a lifetime score of 27 percent. That number is low, but since she first took office in 2015, her annual score has gone up consistently. Back then, her score was at 9 percent. In 2017 she cast 15 pro-environment votes and 20 anti-environment. She was generally in the minority when voting pro-environment. However, with a Democratic House starting in 2019, that could all change, and there's more of a chance of green bills getting passed by Congress.

The National Audubon Society gave Stefanik the 2018 Conservation Hero Award in June for her leadership on climate change, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the Land Water Conservation Fund, and for being a champion for birds and the places they live.

In an email, Stefanik's Deputy Chief of Staff Tom Flanagin said Stefanik believes climate change is a serious threat that must be addressed in economically viable ways.

"She is the author of the House Republican Climate Resolution that calls for using American innovation to improve environmental stewardship," he said, "and she is a member of the Climate Solutions caucus and continues to work in a bipartisan fashion on policies that can reduce the threat of climate change and protect our environment.

"The impacts of a changing climate will present difficulties in many areas of the country, which may cause some individuals to go to different areas. The North Country is one of the most beautiful areas in the country and the desire for people to relocate here and enjoy our resources has always been there. It will be important moving forward that localities create plans for the responsible use of resources so future generations can enjoy the Adirondacks."

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What can be done?

The APA, DEC and Adirondack Wild officials all agreed that individuals should take it upon themselves to reduce their carbon footprints.

In an email, APA Public Information Officer Keith McKeever recommended things such as adding new insulation to homes, replacing drafty windows, carpooling, buying groceries from local food providers, and planting native trees, shrubs and flowers for much-needed pollinators.

"There are many New York State incentive programs to help defer costs," McKeever said. "Home energy audits are offered by the Adirondack North Country Association. These audits include recommendations regarding the effectiveness of alternative energy systems such as rooftop solar or geothermal."

However, all the groups said governmental policy change is the bigger solution.

"A major setback on climate change progress is federal policy withdrawing the United States from global efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels," McKeever said. "Our nation should be leading the global response to climate change, not compounding the problem."

Public citizens putting constructive pressure on leaders local, state and national, is important to make any substantial change, according to Gibson.

"It's not just something out in the future; it's here today," Gibson said. "We have a responsibility today for coming generations."

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Debate

Despite data and a timeline of climate change dating back to the 1800s, it's still a heavily debated topic. Dan Kelting, a Paul Smith's College professor and executive director of the Adirondack Watershed Institute, said it's hard to find viable solutions when some people deny the problem in the first place.

"We have a commander-in-chief who doesn't believe in climate change," Kelting said, referring to President Donald Trump, who is currently trying to remove the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, a group effort among United Nations countries to combat climate change.

"On the state level, our governor (Andrew Cuomo) is supportive of and abiding by the Paris Agreement; California, too," Kelting added. "At the state level, I think we're doing a lot, but it's going to take more than a few states to make a substantial change."

Last winter was particularly long, cold and snowy for the Adirondacks. Temperatures were consistently below zero certain weeks, hundreds of inches of snow fell and the Whiteface Mountain Ski Center was open until Cinco de Mayo. Speaking from an anecdotal standpoint, it looks as if the Adirondacks had a good winter. However, Kelting said people can't just look at what's in front of them; they have to look at weather patterns and ice outs over long periods of time.

"Climate is decades and centuries whereas the weather is what happened last year," Kelting said.

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Will it ever end?

In short, no.

The APA, DEC and Adirondack Wild officials agree that climate change isn't a problem that will go away anytime soon. Even if all the necessary actions were taken to reduce carbon emissions, the Earth would still warm over the next century.

Climate change has been a concern among scientists since the 1800s.

"It will always be an issue and most likely the top issue," Gibson said. "So much comes from climate change and extreme weather. It won't be gone in a few years."

The DEC's Severino said, "Even if all parties in the Paris Climate Agreement keep their emission reduction commitments, we are on track to reach approximately 3 degrees C warming (2 degrees more than we've already warmed) by 2100. At current emission rates, warming could be as high as 5.5 degrees C by 2100. More than 90 percent of the excess heat trapped by global-warming pollution has been absorbed by the ocean. Even if emissions were to be eliminated today, the atmosphere would continue to warm as it comes into thermal equilibrium with the ocean."

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Is it really that bad?

Climate change is usually talked about in terms of the negatives. However, Kelting said there are some positives, depending on how you look at it.

"Because temperatures are rising along the southern East Coast, it's possible more people might start moving to the Adirondacks," Kelting said. "Also, residents might have to pay less money to heat their homes in the winter if it gets warmer. Some people can argue that those are positive outcomes."

In a few decades, according to Stager, the Adirondack Mountains could look like the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina.

"We might be aware of the negative impacts," Stager said, "but someone else can look at the park and say, 'well, it looks pretty,'"

 
 
 

 

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