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Future Shock

The coming Adirondack climate

HERE’S THE REASSURING NEWS about the century to come: the mountains themselves are not expected to move. Mount Marcy will still be Mount Marcy, its rocky cone capping the local skyline.

Beyond that? Beyond that absolutely everything will change. As the world’s climate steadily warms over the next hundred years, a new flurry of computer projections and scientific models makes clear that the Adirondacks will shift in ways it is hard for us even to imagine now. Winter may essentially disappear. The forest we know may give way to an entirely different woods. Those changes in turn will fundamentally alter our economies, and our psyches as well. By 2100 “Adirondack” will mean something very different.

And all because of the molecular structure of car­bon dioxide. When you burn coal or gas or oil, you inevitably produce CO2—burn a gallon of gas dri­ving and you pour about five pounds of carbon into the atmosphere, no matter how well-tuned your engine. That carbon has been steadily accumulating since the start of the Industrial Revolution, and now there’s enough there that it’s heating the planet. That’s not a theory—it’s the broad consensus of sci­entists from around the world. The last decade saw eight of the warmest years on record. Nineteen nine­ty-eight was the warmest year in human history; 2001 was a close second. Worldwide, this past autumn was warmer than any for which we have records.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—all the world’s top climatologists, assembled by the United Nations—issued their forecast for the century last winter. Globally, they said, the planet could expect an increase of about five degrees Fah­renheit, with a worst-case scenario of about ten de­grees. The planet’s average temperature—now sixty degrees—would grow to sixty-five or seventy de­grees, which may not sound like that much until you consider that since the last Ice Age the planet’s tem­perature has only warmed about one degree a mil­lennium. We’re going to see it heat up fifty times that fast. That world, by all projections, will be wet­ter than the one we’ve known, and probably stormi­er. Polar ice will start to melt, and sea levels will rise.

Scientists project the planet’s future more confi­dently than they forecast for particular regions—the local effects of mountain ranges, lakes and oceans make it harder to focus on smaller areas. Still, in Sep­tember of last year, a team of New Hampshire sci­entists working for the federal government released a regional assessment for New England and north­ern New York, the so-called NERA report, one of sixteen such studies prepared for different regions around the country. The report focused on two cli­mate models, one compiled by British researchers and the other by Canadians. Each showed that tem­peratures in our area will climb dramatically in the century to come—the Canadians predicted that by century’s end the Adirondacks would be about ten degrees warmer than it is now, while the British com­puter forecast a rise of about six degrees. Either num­ber would represent an end to several millennia of relative climate stability; either would suffice to usher in massive changes. How to imagine it? Some­time this century the climate of Boston will come to resemble, depending on which model you consult, the climate of Richmond, Virginia, or the climate of Atlanta, Georgia. All of a sud­den, we Adirondackers may be living in the Smokies.

To understand what that means, consider first the forests that cover nearly all solid ground inside the Blue Line. Broadly speak­ing, of course, trees live where they live because it’s the right climate—the temperature and the precipitation meet their needs. Drive to Disney World and along the way you’ll notice the woods slowly changing.

So, again broadly speaking, if you make Onchiota more like Orlando you would expect the forest to change too. No one is predicting palm trees lining Long Lake, but five different climate models cited by the NERA assessment scientists suggest that “by 2100 the major components of the forests will be oak and hickory.”

“Every forecast shows that maple will be out-competed,” says Shannon Spencer, a research sci­entist at the University of New Hampshire’s Com­plex Systems Research Center. “Maple is the largest loser. Beech and birch also have trouble. Pine and oak tend to be winners.”

If shifts on that scale happen, it won’t be the first time Adirondack forests have changed. Stephen Jackson, a professor of botany at the University of Wyoming, put in fifteen seasons of field work look­ing at pollen and microfossils in the High Peaks. About nine thousand years ago, he says, as the glac­iers retreated, white pine first moved into the area. “I think that each species’ arrival since then proba­bly represents some sort of climate change opening up the territory to allow them to come in,” Jackson explains. Hemlock, for instance, arrived seven thou­sand years ago, probably because the climate grew wetter. They dominated the landscape for a couple of millennia till some pest or another nearly wiped them out—opening up the landscape for another new arrival, yellow birch. Sugar maple, beech and striped maple also started to spread widely in those years. “The last big change occurred around two thousand years ago when we see a big increase in red spruce,” he says. “That pretty much marks the development of the modern vegetal configuration.”

Predicting exactly how forests will change in the years to come is impossible, Jackson concedes. Seeds carried in by wind or squirrels may outcompete those that drop from existing trees; existing stands will be stressed by higher temperatures and end up more susceptible to disease. “There are so many variables that are ecologically relevant. Just for temperature there are twenty or thirty variables that might affect growth and survival of plants—how many growing degree days, how cold the winter minimum will still be, how high the summer maximum will rise. Then there’s moisture, and all the others. It’s not clear exactly how it will play out.”

Neil Pederson, a researcher at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who studies forest composition throughout the Hudson Valley, adds his own set of cautions. One of the competing theories among silvicultural experts is that species like maples actually grow best near the southern end of their dis­tributions. If that were the case, it might take a cou­ple of centuries for climate change to catch up with them. His early results, from test plots near Cambridge, New York, fit more neatly with the dire com­puter models, however—as temperatures have in­creased, white spruce growth has slowed. And, he adds, other scientists have watched species like the turkey vulture emigrate north up the Hudson Valley in recent years as temperatures warm.

Invading species lured by balmier climes might in the end do as much to change the Adirondack forest as the direct effect of temperature itself. The wool­ly adelgid, for instance (see “The Minute Menace,” June 2001), is a lethal pest that has decimated hem­lock stands in southern New York and New Eng­land—in some forests only a few hemlocks survived their onslaught. At the moment, its advance appears to have halted somewhere around Albany, probably because it can’t cope with severe winters. “But with increasing temperatures, especially with winter minimums, that will allow species and diseases to mul­tiply more easily,” says Spencer. “In colder regions it’s the freezing temperatures that don’t allow them to survive now over the full cycle”—indeed, one Connecticut cold snap wiped out ninety-three per­cent of the pests in one study. If you remove the chill, you remove the region’s best protection.

Long before trees disappear, some of their products may be in short supply. Maple syrup, for instance, is as temperature dependent as any other agricultural crop—perhaps more so. Corn will grow, albeit slow­ly, in a chilly year. But sap won’t run at commercial volumes unless there is a string of nights below freez­ing and days above forty degrees. In the past, those perfect weeks came most commonly between the middle of March and the middle of April. But as the NERA report showed with an array of regional statistics, recent warm years have caused sap to flow in early February, led to shorter seasons, reduced the quality of the syrup, and cut the total volume. “Because it is highly dependent upon prevailing climatic conditions,” the report concluded, sugaring “may be irreparably altered under a changing climate.”

Not everyone makes syrup (and Price Chopper will probably still have plenty of grade A from Canadian suppliers). But every Adirondacker waits for late September—for the few weeks when green and gray, the default colors of our woods, give way to the bonfire of reds and yellows and oranges. There’s a reason that tourists stream north to peep at leaves— down where they come from they don’t get much color, because oak leaves and hickory leaves don’t do much in the fall. Our brilliant colors, according to the NERA report, may by century’s end give way to “browns and dull greens.” And as that happens, I imagine, the magnitude of these changes will finally hit home for most people. These are quiet mountains and forests, not full of the Ansel Adams splendor that marks the West. But for the weeks around Columbus Day they are as outrageously, insistently beautiful as any spot on earth. To watch that fade slowly to drab will not be easy.

For some it may be easier to imagine doing without winter. I have neighbors who grumble about the snow and ice—they and their descendants may have a lot less to grumble about, according to Tony Federer, a forest meteorologist who has worked over the years to perfect a hydrologic model for the area. “I can plug numbers into my program pretty easily,” he says. “What happens if the temperature goes up two degrees? You get major reductions in snow.”

Partly, he says, that’s because winter temperatures in the region already hover near the freezing level. “A lot of the time we have snowstorms now when the temperature is pretty close to freezing.” And the computer simulations all show the greatest warming coming during the winter months.

If you trust the across-the-post-office-counter wisdom, that’s what is already happening—nearly everyone thinks that winters are shorter and easier than they were a generation ago. Barry Rock, who directed the NERA project, grew up in Barre, Vermont: “I can remember fence posts routinely being covered for weeks at a time, and one of the first signs of spring was being able to see the tops of the posts by early March.” No longer, he says. Snowfall in northern New England has already dropped fifteen percent from the mid-1950s, and the data from across the hemisphere makes clear this is not just a regional trend. On average, winter arrives about eight days later and exits about nine days earlier than it did in 1970. For the moment, areas with lake-effect snows seem to be the exception to the rule: warmer weather means the lakes stay open longer, feeding moisture to the clouds. But that only works while the temperature’s below freezing. After that, Watertown may prove to be an apt year-round moniker.

If winter can shrink by more than two weeks in thirty years, it is not impossible to imagine it nearly disappearing under the scenarios now envisioned by climate scientists. Already lakes are freezing later and melting earlier (Lake Champlain has not frozen solid the last five winters, the first run like that in two hundred years of records). “I wonder how often ponds freeze over in the Richmond, Virginia, area,” says Rock. “In the mountains of West Virginia, ponds do still freeze over, but not solid enough for skating, and ice-fishing isn’t a winter sport in those areas.” Once the climate starts to change, the effects can snowball, so to speak. “When you have a lot of snow on the ground, it reflects a lot of incoming radiation back out to space,” says Dr. George Hurtt of the Complex Systems lab. When the snow starts to melt, the darker landscape absorbs more heat—think of a rock that pokes up above the snow quickly melting its own hole. Now think of that happening with a continent instead.

In fact, the NERA chapter on winter ends with the following warning: while some alpine ski areas may still be able to make snow, albeit for a shorter stretch each year, “the cross-country and snowmobile industries . . . may become nonexistent by 2100.” Non­existent, as in no more. As in friction ruling year-round, with none of the exuberant release that comes when water shifts into its crystal form. No snowball fights, no snowmen, no sleigh rides, no pond hock­ey, no snowshoeing, no tracking animals through the snow. Hey, but look on the bright side—mud season would last a lot longer!

Plenty of Adirondackers depend on snow for more than pleasure, of course, and so far they’re trying to keep a stiff upper lip. Olavi Hirvonen has run the Lapland Lake ski center in Benson for decades, “long enough to know that snow usually goes in cycles.” He reels off annual snowfall totals: 1978-79, 125 inches; 1979-80, 110 inches. Then one hundred, 187, 185, ninety-four. “That’s the only one less than a hundred inches—since then we’ve had 162 inches, 189, 136, so on. It’s hard to say it’s gone down at all.”

If it does, he says, he won’t be able to compensate like the downhill areas—with snow guns. “You’d have to have so many guests to justify putting it in and maintaining it,” he says. In the meantime, “in this business you have to be optimistic.”

Still, the prospect of warmer winters does send paradoxical shivers down the backs of some Adiron­dack business owners. Old Forge, for instance, bills itself as the Snowmobile Capital of the East, but recently retired supervisor George Hiltebrant can remember what it was like in his high school days: “In the winter you could lie down in the middle of Route 28 and take a nap.”

Now all that has changed. Snowmobilers bought a lot of the summer cabins and winterized them, and on the winter weekends a blue haze hangs over the snowbanks. “Last year there was only one weekend from Christmas on when you could get a room in Old Forge,” says Hiltebrant. The town fathers have noticed a drop in snowfall—that’s why they put in snowmaking equipment at McCauley Mountain, the local downhill slope—but there’s nothing they could do to save the Ski-doo season if winter began to van­ish. “A couple of years ago when we didn’t have a lot of snow, you could see the economy wasn’t any good,” says Hiltebrant. “A lot of the service people got laid off. When the business people cry, I say cry all you want—you’ve made lots of money, you should have saved some of it. But the people they were lay­ing off were living hand to mouth.”

Elsewhere in the park, tourist businesses are more diversified, and few are quite as fearful of a change in seasons. “I don’t think I’d be a buyer of a ski resort now,” says Jerry Bottcher, owner of the Hungry Trout lodge, in Wilmington. But even though his resort sits a half-mile from the entrance to Whiteface Mountain Ski Area, Bottcher says “we don’t exactly depend on the winter for positive cash flows.” In fact, once you’ve counted up plowing and heating costs, staying open in the winter has as much to do with keep­ing his employees working as it does with making money. “I remember something Art Devlin once told me from all his experience with the Motor Inn [in Lake Placid],” says Bottcher. “He said, ‘Sum­mers are always good, some are just better than oth­ers. And winters are always bad, some are just not as bad as others.’”

For the Lake Placid region in general, says James McKenna, president of the visitors bureau, between sixty-five and seventy percent of receipts come between Memorial Day and Columbus Day. Whiteface hosted about 150,000 skiers in the 2000-2001 season, and maybe half of those were visitors from out of town. “When you consider that we have 1.8 mil­lion visitors a year, well, if nobody came to White-face at all we’d still have 1.72 million,” he says. Last November, which was unseasonably warm, “what we really had was an extended season of fall visitors,” says McKenna. “We saw more activity than we would have seen in November with a foot of snow on the ground.” In large measure, he says, that’s because many of the area’s attractions are now “weather­proof.” The bobsled run is refrigerated—you can carry on world-class competition when the air tem­perature is fifty degrees. Forget the ponds—the four ice sheets inside the Olympic Center see almost non-stop hockey and figure-skating action.

Still, if winter were to go away for good, the region’s image would change dramatically. “Maybe the next time the Olympics come it will be the sum­mer games,” laughs Sandy Caligiore, director of communications for the Olympic Regional Development Au­thority. “It’s conceivable, looking into the crystal ball, that fifty years from now we are an economy similar to what Myrtle Beach is now, what Hilton Head is now, where we’re offering golf or tennis rather than snowboarding. … We might have to get ahead of the curve and plan accordingly. Maybe we build more golf courses. Maybe we start marketing and promoting our­selves around fishing, hiking, canoe­ing on a year-round basis.”

It might just work—other places will be warming too, of course, and if Boston feels like Atlanta, Atlanta may feel like a place you want to get out of for a vaca­tion. “Already our surveys show that the low humid­ity of the area has a positive effect on our visitors in the height of summer,” says McKenna. Those peo­ple currently retiring to the South might decide to retire to the North instead, if extreme weather came to mean heat, not cold.

But even if the end of winter left money in the till, it almost certainly would come at a cost. “Win­ter’s part of the deal here,” says Nancie Battaglia, a well-known High Peaks-based photographer who has spent much of her adult life seeking out the glow of sunrise against the snows of the mountains. “It makes us all stronger people.” And it lets us huddle around the woodstove, and make jokes about “three months of bad sledding.” And it lets us appreciate spring in a way no Georgian ever has.

There are a few scientists left who aren’t con­vinced the climate is going to change dramatically. Curt Stager* of Paul Smith’s College points to a set of temperature readings from the New York State Ranger School at Wanakena that date back seven­ty-one years. At least at that one spot, he says, tem­peratures have actually gotten a little cooler since the 1920s. If that trend continues, he says, we might not have to worry about global warming—at least as much as we have to worry about acid rain, invasive species, overdevelopment and disease wrecking beech trees.

And others try to take a longer philosophical view. Ross Whaley, for many years dean of the Environmental Sciences and Forestry School at Syracuse, and a longtime Adirondacker, says, “I do know that the Adirondacks won’t be the environment that I cher­ish.” Still, he adds, “the kids of 2100 will simply think that the Adirondacks is just the way it is supposed to be, because they have known nothing else.”

Perhaps the most important question is, what if anything can we do to slow down this lightning-quick warm-up? Scientists caution that it’s far too late to prevent global warming—that we’ve already raised the temperature, and that the carbon we’ve pumped into the atmosphere will automatically raise it some more. But most agree that aggressive action to switch our economies away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy would at least nudge the trajecto­ry of the warming a bit, and perhaps give natural sys­tems a bit more time to cope with what’s coming. In real terms, that means driving smaller cars, insulating homes better, raising prices on oil and gas instead of drilling for more, and sharing all the advanced tech­nologies we are developing with China, India and the other countries just starting down our path.

None of those seem particularly politically popu­lar right now—who wants to pay more for gas? But then, who wants to stare at a hillside of brown in September? If the scientists are right, that may be the choice we’re right now making.

*Since this article was written, Curt Stager has changed his view of future Adirondack climate in light of improved data, as he explains in his book “Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth” (St. Martins, 2011). His continuing analyses of upgraded Adirondack weather records have revealed warming rather than cooling trends, dramatic loss of lake ice, and more severe storms (see “Water Proof,” from the April 2013 issue of Adirondack Life). However, most experts now say that any climate-driven loss of maples is likely to be  slower than what “Future Shock” envisioned.

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