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As Climate Warms, Expect Surprises

New York Times Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin and paleoecologist Stephen T. Jackson today cautioned scientists and policymakers at the Adirondack Research Consortium’s annual conference in Lake Placid not to be too climate-centric. And, they said, expect surprises.

Even though the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is on course to double by year 2100, and even though the temperature is rising and projected to rise somewhere in the range of 4 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century, and even though warmer summers are beginning to kill Adirondack brook trout in shallow lakes on the margins of their thermal range, factors other than temperature are likely to determine how resilient the greater Adirondacks will be in a warmer future.

Revkin, who lives in the Hudson Valley and has been a science reporter for 30 years, called the Adirondacks a near-home example of an “anthrome,” a place where the human and natural landscape are integrated. Anthromes, as opposed to biomes or pure wilderness, are “zones of compromise, adaptability, and complexity,” he explained.

“Complexity” was a word Revkin and Jackson used frequently in their joint keynote address. We who live in the Adirondacks are accustomed to the complexity of our 10 classifications of land use, but they talked about the complexity of model projections, energy choices and ecological response to physical changes in the environment.

The general warming trend is predictable, but what is less predictable is how much air temperatures will warm—and how land, water, plants, animals, and human societies will react. People need to get more comfortable with the notion that scientists don’t entirely know what to expect, Revkin said. “There can be surprises. For a while there was too much of a push to say we know it all now. . . . Can you have urgency and patience at the same time? I think with global warming you’ve got to do that.”

How even a small increase in temperature (2.1°F in the Champlain Basin since 1975) is already affecting the Adirondacks is not easy to sense, even with brook trout acting as sentinels. But we have witnessed warming on the lakes, which are covered with ice two fewer weeks than a century ago. We also expect more intense bouts of precipitation, and the eastern Adirondacks experienced that kind of disruption during the wet spring of 2011 and the destruction of Tropical Storm Irene, later that year.

A surprise here has been landslides. A slope on the side of Little Porter Mountain gave way under heavy snows and rains in 2011, destabilizing $3 million in property value and throwing the value of other Adirondack mountainsides into limbo.

A main task now is to stop building in harm’s way, Revkin said; exposure to risk has quadrupled with new weather patterns, and policies should focus on avoiding areas of vulnerability, such as floodplains or Colorado mountainsides where wildfire is already a known risk.

How Adirondack forests will respond will be contingent not only on climate but on events, adaptive capacity and other variables, said Jackson, who is director of the Department of Interior’s Southwest Climate Science Center. “I worry that climate change is now the 800-pound gorilla in conservation biology. It is important, it is a threat, but there are lots of other threats we need to pay attention to.” Invasive species, for example, disrupt freshwater ecosystems much more rapidly than temperature.

Revkin said, “If you limit fragmentation, the Amazon will be around through this century at least, in terms of not transitioning to a drier environment. It will be a forest. So in other words, if we can limit other influences on these ecosystems and species, we can end up with some decent outcomes.”

In the face of broad-based environmental change and limited funds and time, communities, scientists and natural-resource managers will have to figure out when to intervene and when not to. And, Jackson said, they have to be nimble.

“The Adirondacks may lose a few species. They will probably gain some as well,” he said. “We do need to be aware that this landscape is going to change, often unpredictably, often in ways we prefer not to see. We do need to understand this heterogeneity better and be able to identify which areas are going to be most resistant or resilient to climate change.”

The Adirondack Research Consortium conference continues Thursday at High Peaks Resort, in Lake Placid. Other topics include sustainability and communities, energy, wilderness and working landscapes, wildlife and ecological trends.

UPDATE: Tomeka Weatherspoon of Mountain Lake PBS recorded an interview with Revkin in Lake Placid. They talked more about the Adirondack Park as a template for people living amid natural systems. Revkin also blogged about the diverse constituencies of the Adirondacks and expanded on the concept of anthromes, developed by biologist Erle C. Ellis.