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How a changing climate will change life in the Finger Lakes

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From his lofty office overlooking the valley around Cayuga Lake, Mark Wysocki, a Cornell University Climatologist, works with data sets well over the heads of the general public.

An expert in air pollution, forecasting and weather analysis, Wysocki, tucked into an overflowing office furnished with plants, stacks of files and several monitors occupied by various charts and graphs, works to educate both private industry and the public on the way the world works.

And lately, that world has been changing.

Wildfires rage up and down the west coast. Catastrophic storms batter cities on the Gulf of Mexico. Glaciers disappear. Drought and violent rains alternate with little warning. And it’s all because of human activity.

Looking at modern data and trends, climatologists like Wysocki have determined that while, in earth’s history, we have had ice ages and rising temperatures before, we are currently in a period of warming that – while some natural inputs, like have contributed – can be directly attributed to human activity.

“We take a look at this up and down pattern and realize, suddenly, we’re not coming down,” Wysocki said. “Supposedly, we should be going into an ice age if you take a look at the cycle we’ve been experiencing in the past. But we’re stuck at a plateau, and that plateau seems to be going up a bit. So the question is now, what is different with the planet than what was there 100,000 years ago? And the answer is people.”

Though not an exact, linear science, climatologists have noticed a clear change on the planet. Every decade, Wysocki said, the scientific community updates their statistical models to define what the climate can be defined as within a 30-year period. (For reference, our current climate standard is based on figures from 1981-2010; in two years, we will have moved onto a model based on figures from 1991-2020.) To define climate change, climatologists like Wysocki examine the previous 30-year period to our current standard in order to examine what has changed.

In the most recent comparisons, he said, scientists have observed that previous standards for what once qualified as “extreme events,” (events that generally occur less than 5 percent of the time) have become much more normalized day-by-day, month-by-month, year-by-year than under previous climate standards. This shifting of statistical standards over an extended period can be referred to as an early, numbers-based observation of a change in our climate.

NRCC Climatologist and Cornell Professor Mark Wysocki

NRCC Climatologist and Cornell Professor Mark Wysocki

And this trendline we’ve found ourselves on, many experts have warned, is likely to be an irreversible one, as a United Nations panel of scientists warned in 2014.

While efforts are being taken to do our part in slowing the influx of carbon in the air, residents in the Finger Lakes should begin preparing for the realities of a much different climate than the one we’ve grown used to. Here are just a few ways experts say this momentous, global shift will impact your way of life right here in the Finger Lakes.

Change 1: All Your Favorite Trees Will Die, Leaving Us Prone To Forest Fires

Over the past decade, wildfires in Colorado, Washington State and most recently, California, have grabbed the attention of the public writ large.

What hasn’t grabbed many eyes, however, is the alarming reality that climate, for a number of reasons, has led to massive die-offs of trees in the west. In 2009, a joint study by researchers at Oregon State and Washington State University showed data detailing a doubling of tree mortality in the Pacific Northwest over the course of just 17 years. According to an article in the New York Times, =Arizona, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico saw more than 350 million pinyon pines over 4,600 square miles die in just one year. And, in a tragically ironic twist, The Los Angeles Times, in June 2016, noted that more than 26 million trees had died in the Sierra Nevadas since that previous October, leaving the region susceptible to forest fires.

“And why are they dead?” Wysocki asks. “Because they’ve had mild winters.”

But is it only the climate that’s to blame? Not completely, but partly: it’s the bugs.

Given a longer time to breed and feed, invasive species such as the Asian Longhorned Beetle, the Emerald Ash Borer and Hemlock Wooly Adelgid have gained a pronounced presence from coast-to-coast including right here in New York State, impacting even more trees.

“Warmer temperatures will definitely allow the population to grow and spread,” said Mark Whitmore, a Cornell entomologist who studies the Adelgid. “If it gets up in the Adirondacks and starts killing Hemlocks, as far as fires go that will be a problem.”

The debris from the trees will litter the ground and, given the right conditions, be more susceptible to dry out and burn. In the Southern Catskills, where there have been significant die-offs have occurred in recent years, there already seems to be some conditions that make scientists nervous. That’s not to say New York State will become the next nexus of wildfires in the United States: “That’s one of the beauties of New York State, is we still have precipitation,” Whitmore said. “But things can always change. We don’t really know what’s going to happen.

That’s not to say all the trees will fall victim to the bugs: others might end up falling victim to the climate.

“You like spruce trees?” Wysocki asked. “Say goodbye.”

Depending on which model you look at, changes in the atmosphere projected by groups like Cornell’s Northeast Regional Climate Center, it is predicted all the region’s spruce trees – as well as several other species – will die out by the end of the century, likely to be replaced instead by warmer-climate trees like oak and hickory. The reason, Wysocki said, will mostly come down to subtle changes in both precipitation and temperature, as spruce trees typically perform best in cooler climates with well-drained soils.

“This is part of the problem: When you look at the number of species, per plant, affected by changes in temperature and moisture… the future forecast across the Northeastern United States is a warming trend,” Wysocki said. “And that warming trend impacts precipitation. And that forecast equals less snow, which is something we’ve been seeing since the 1970s. Under our previous 30-year climate standard, average annual snowfall was above 70 inches per year. In our current 30-year standard, it’s 68.7 inches. We’ve gone down. It doesn’t look like much, but when you take that 10 year change, and apply it to the next century… you’re looking at no more snow cover except in parts of Maine and the Adirondacks.”

Beyond devastation to the local ski industry (for which no economic data seems to exist for but anecdotally, have all been undergoing changes), this shift in weather patterns brings us to another significant change...

Change 2: Say Goodbye To Maple Syrup

Beyond the disappearance of maple trees, which are also prone to death by warm weather, their sugary, delicious byproduct, maple syrup, will also disappear.

Maple sap, to reach the right level of sugar content, requires an extended period of cold days in order to be palatable for maple syrup production. In colder years, light-colored syrups, deemed “fancy grade,” are often the norm but, with the winters warming up, syrup batches have become quite unpredictable. The trend has become so concerning that a number of scientists at Montana State University, earlier this year, began to study the impact of weather variability on maple syrup production in order to not only document recent changes to maple syrup production, but to learn how sugar bushes expect to handle various social, economic and environmental changes affecting their operations.

But, considering states like Vermont, New York and Maine rank as the nation’s top producers of maple syrup, the future looks bleak for the regional delicacy.

“You better start getting used to the artificial stuff,” Wysocki said.

This is a significant development for New York State’s economy in particular, however climate change may present some unique opportunities for New York agriculture...

Change 3: New York's Growers Could See New Opportunities

According to Michael Hoffman, Executive Director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Solutions, New York farmers are now experiencing 10 more frost-free days than they did in recent years, which make for some potential opportunities for New York State to take on a position as one of the nation’s agricultural leaders.

Increased risk of heavy rains can thwart earlier planting or later harvest by hindering farmers’ ability to get in the fields. The lack of snow cover, which insulates soils in the winter and allows for continued microbial activity, will be reduced, meaning generally less-fertile ground in which to plant. Industries with sensitive timelines – like the Apple industry – have been dealing with more frequent years of spring frost damage as late winter temperature variability often “fools” the plants into blooming much too early.

Climate Change Graph 1

Higher levels of precipitation have a correlation with last frost date, according to Cornell researchers. This graph depicts the last frost date (black line) and rainfall in the 21 days prior to last frost (green bars) for the historical and projected period of 1980–2100.

This is the first generation of farmers who cannot rely on the historical weather records to them when to plant, what to plant, or how to grow it,” wrote David Walter Wolfe, a Professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell in an email. “Given the increased unpredictability of the weather, many farmers are ‘hedging their bets’ by diversifying the crops and varieties they grow, and also using multiple planting dates. In this way, if one crop or one planting date is hit by some unexpected weather extreme, they will have other crops or planting dates that are able to tolerate or avoid those extremes.”

However, New York State does have one advantage: sustained precipitation, something that can’t be said for more landlocked agricultural states in the Midwest.

“Some think this may be an opportunity,” Hoffman, who was co-author on a great paper on the topic, said. “We have 22 percent of the nation’s population right here in the Northeast, and someone is going to have to feed them. Is this in fact an opportunity to intensify and diversify what we grow here to supply the cities in the Northeast?”

A key to farming in the future, Wolfe said, will be through much more sophisticated monitoring of their environment, utilizing technology from field sensors to remote sensing using data from satellites or drones.  More progressive farmers, he said, will be aided further through better record keeping and through the use of software – through resources like Cornell’s Climate Smart Farming website – to analyze trends on the various fields and crops on the farm to make decisions regarding varieties and crops they might grow in the future as well as optimum approaches to growing those crops, such as installing cover crops to stabilize their soils or revolutionize how they irrigate their fields to mitigate the impact of water deficits.  

Over the coming decades we will undoubtedly see shifts in the agricultural landscape, but it is hard to predict exactly what that landscape will look like,” wrote Wolfe. “Farmers will be adapting, and will also have available to them new decision tools, new crop varieties to choose from.  A warmer climate will open the door to explore longer growing season varieties, and crops that in the past did not do well in the region.”

There could be some benefits to the Finger Lakes premium wine industry, Wolfe wrote, partly due to the opportunities the warmer temperatures present for the region’s grapegrowers: The grapes ideal to make Vitis vinifera (European) wine varieties can be damaged by extremely low mid-winter temperatures (e.g, below -12 F) but, with warmer weather, this is expected to occur less frequently. Add in warmer, longer summers, and some of the grapes ideal for reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel, would see some benefit as well.

Change 4: The Dairy Industry Will Likely See Some Problems

Another consequence of higher temperatures? Some added complications to one of New York’s largest industries: The dairy industry. Here’s how:

With higher ambient temperatures, cows need to stay cool somehow, and they begin to pant and sweat. If the weather becomes too hot or too humid for the cows to handle, rectal temperatures – another critical metric for milk production – rise above critical thresholds related to decreased dry matter intake, leading to reduced efficiency of milk yield. And it doesn’t take sustained high temperatures to do this:

“Just one or two days of higher temperatures than normal can actually affect milk production over a long duration for the animal,” said Michael Hoffman, Executive Director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions. “It’s not just one bad day or multiple bad days – the heat can change a cow’s digestive and metabolic processes like it does to us. They’re just simply too hot.”

And though there are several solutions to this – be it breeding cows based on heat tolerance or improving the air conditioning in a farmer’s barn – the costs of such solutions could be lofty, both for farmer’s pocketbooks and the environment.

This is of particular interest for New York. According to figures from Cornell Cooperative Extension, more than 625,000 cows – nearly 15 percent of all cows in the United States – roam its fields. (Tompkins County accounts for about 9,300 cows, according the New York State Department Of Agriculture.) This amounts to 3.2 million total sales of assorted milk products in 2016, which translates to billions of dollars in revenues and a 45 percent share of all agricultural revenues statewide.

While there has been an overabundance of milk entering the market, which has presented problems of its own, climate change has the potential to impact entire herds of dairy cows in more ways than just their metabolic functions. In the wake of the 2016 drought experienced across the Northeast, huge yield losses among the crop of rainfed field corn, hay and alfalfa – significant sources for animal feedstock for the dairy industry – led some farmers to sell off some of their herds, Wolfe wrote, because they could not afford a year of buying food for the animals.

Beebe Lake, during the 2016 drought.

Change 5: Expect More Strains On Municipal Water

Some of us might remember the great drought of 2016 for its brown water, spurred by the sudden rush of water from Bolton Point into the city’s parched and gunked-up water mains. But the summer – one of the first indicators of another new normal for Tompkins County residents – exposed what might be a further reality of life in Tompkins County.

Cornell’s water system relies on the flows of Fall Creek. The City of Ithaca draws its water from Six Mile Creek. When there’s no snow, there is no gradual melting into the creeks to promote a sustained flow of water into the creeks. Without rains in a reasonable frequency, creeks can’t recharge, putting the city’s water supply into question and leaving both the university and the city to draw from the lake. Though not the end of the world, responsible stewardship of the watershed will likely continue to be a policy issue for local leaders in the coming decades should the city water supply again come into question.


Though it helps to think of climate change in the paradigm of the change that is coming to our own backyard, the world won’t shut itself out of our bubble in Tompkins County: toxins from one nation can still infect our air, despite our own stewardship. If New York City floods, its refugees will need to live elsewhere. In looking toward the future, Wysocki hinted in the case of recent natural disasters in the Gulf Coast, it pays not to simply think of how things will change, but to be mindful of our impacts on our actions at home on others and equally as important, our own resilience:

“New Orleans, when it flooded after Katrina, I made a bold statement at a talk that I gave to the general public where I was asked, ‘what would I do?’” Wysocki said. “I said, ‘close the town down.’ And I heard a groan from the audience.”

“I don’t live in New Orleans,” he added. “I don’t have an attachment to New Orleans. So I can say that. But I guarantee you if I was born and raised there, I wouldn’t have said that statement. But then, by that logic, I should kick everyone out of Oklahoma; tornado capital of the world. I should kick everyone out of California; earthquake capital of the world. If we live with nature, we need to ask whether we’ll attempt to impose our will on nature, or if we intend to live with it.”

Follow Nick Reynolds on Twitter @Nickthaca

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