Thursday, November 17, 2011
From Shore to Forest, Projecting Effects of Climate Change
While the long-term outlook for grape-growers in the Finger Lakes region is favorable, it is less than optimal for skiers and other winter sports enthusiasts in the Adirondacks. Fir and spruce trees are expected to die out in the Catskills, and New York City’s backup drinking water supply may well be contaminated as a result of seawater making its way farther up the Hudson River.
These possibilities — modeled deep into this century — are detailed in a new assessment of the impact that climate change will have in New York State. The 600-page report, published on Wednesday, was commissioned by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, a public-benefit corporation, and is a result of three years of work by scientists at state academic institutions, including Columbia and Cornell Universities and the City University of New York.
Its authors say it is the most detailed study that looks at how changes brought about by a warming Earth — from rising temperatures to more precipitation and global sea level rise — will affect the economy, the ecology and even the social fabric of the state.
Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior research scientist at Columbia’s Earth Institute, said the report was much broader in scope than earlier efforts by New York City that tried to evaluate how best to prepare for climate change.
“New York City’s report focuses on how climate change will affect critical structures” like bridges and sewage systems, she said. “This report also looks at public health, agriculture, transportation and economics.”
The authors drew on results from global climate models and then created projections for variables like rainfall and temperatures for seven regions across the state. Then they tried to assess how those alterations would play out in specific terms. They also developed adaptation recommendations for different economic sectors.
If carbon emissions continue to increase at their current pace, for example, temperatures are expected to rise across the state by 3 degrees Fahrenheit by the 2020s and by as much as 9 degrees by the 2080s. That would have profound effects on agriculture across the state, the report found. For example, none of the varieties of apples currently grown in New York orchards would be viable. Dairy farms would be less productive as cows faced heat stress. And the state’s forests would be transformed; spruce-fir forests and alpine tundra would disappear as invasive species like kudzu, an aggressive weed, gained more ground.
If the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets melt, as the report says could happen, the sea level could rise by as much as 55 inches, which means that beach communities would frequently be inundated by flooding.
“In 2020, nearly 96,000 people in the Long Beach area alone may be at risk from sea-level rise,” the report said, referring to just one oceanfront community on the South Shore of Long Island. “By 2080, that number may rise to more than 114,500 people. The value of property at risk in the Long Beach area under this scenario ranges from about $6.4 billion in 2020 to about $7.2 billion in 2080.”
The report found that the effects of climate change would fall disproportionately on the poor and the disabled.
In coastal areas in New York City and along rivers in upstate New York, it said, there is a high amount of low-income housing that would be in the path of flooding.
Art DeGaetano, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell, said that its findings need not be interpreted as totally devastating.
“It would be all bad if you wanted a static New York, with the same species of bird and the same crops,” he said, “but there will be opportunities as well. We expect, for example, that New York State will remain water-rich and we may be able to capitalize when other parts of the country are having severe drought.”
The next step, the authors said, is for them to meet with state agencies and try to work with them to carry out some of the report’s recommendations of ways to cope with climate change
One would be to get the state to routinely incorporate projections of increased sea levels and heavy downpours when building big infrastructure projects. They also suggested protecting and nursing natural barriers to sea-level rise, like coastal wetlands, and changing building codes in certain area for things like roof strength and foundation depth in areas that would be hit hardest by storms.
“If there is one thing we learned from Hurricane Irene,” Dr. Rosenzweig said referring to the tropical storm that pummeled the state this past summer, “we have a lot more we could be doing to prepare.”