Ramp up climate response

By Tom Woodman

With this issue, Explorer writer Mike Lynch completes a yearlong series on the impact of climate change on the Adirondacks—its wildlife and ecosystems as well as its human communities.

One of the lessons we can draw from his work is that when we study climate change in a particular region like the Adirondacks we find great complexity. The intricate interaction of species and ecosystems requires extensive research to understand and is affected by numerous factors. One inquiry leads to another; historical data can be in short supply; and particularly when it comes to forecasting the future there is no single model that will tell the whole story.

Don’t misunderstand. The questions aren’t about whether global climate change is real. About that the science is well established. As Paul Smith’s College Professor Curt Stager points out in a book review in this issue, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that climate change is occurring on a scale that will transform the planet. The time for doubt on that score is past.

The uncertainties we must address involve the specific consequences on an Adirondack landscape that includes low-elevation boreal wetlands and alpine mountaintops, native trout swimming in warming waters, and moose that are living at the southern edge of their range.

While biologists seek better understanding of the natural environment, planners grapple with how to adapt the human environment. They seek to forecast weather systems and guide us as we plan how we can live in the floodplains of major river systems or construct roads and bridges that will allow us to go about our lives safely.

It can be hard to attribute just one reason, including warming climate, to changes taking place in complicated natural systems. Is a winter with little Adirondack snow a result of climate change, El Nino, or both? The same species threatened by a warming climate are also coping with factors like human overdevelopment, invasive species, and pollution.

There are many fine scientists doing important work on these questions. And there is a growing number of citizens helping to gather the information that will build a record for researchers to draw on in coming decades. But we need to bring more resources to bear.

Whether we look at government agencies like the state Department of Environmental Conservation, schools like Paul Smith’s College or the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry, or nonprofits like the Wildlife Conservation Society and others, we have to find ways to increase funding. This research is confronting challenges that are immediate and that lie at the heart of the character of the Adirondack Park.

Our series also makes it clear that state and local communities need to increase investment in making the man-made environment more resilient to the effects of climate change.

Researchers predict that as the atmosphere warms we will experience more extreme storms, including heavy rain and flooding. Data show that this trend is already underway, especially in the northeast portion of the country. The Adirondacks felt the brunt of this in 2011. First, heavy spring rains and rapid snowmelt caused five-hundred-year floods in areas of the Park. Then in August, Tropical Storm Irene brought extreme rainfall that led to severe flooding that destroyed homes and damaged roads and bridges. Communities along the Ausable River system were particularly hard hit.

We can’t prevent the storms, but we can work to make our communities better able to withstand them. New York State has already begun such preparations by replacing bridges and culverts on Route 73 between Keene Valley and Lake Placid with new ones better engineered to allow large volumes of water to pass through. This should be an ongoing strategy throughout the Park in areas where waterways are prone to overflow.

Planners should also more aggressively work to move home and business construction out of river floodplains and study where the floodplain maps need to be redrawn to anticipate more extreme storms. We should also consider the likelihood of flooding when siting environmentally sensitive facilities like wastewater-treatment plants. In the spring floods of 2011, a surging Saranac River overwhelmed Saranac Lake’s treatment plant, sending effluent into the waterway.

We need to learn far more about the ways the Adirondacks will feel the consequences of climate change. But we can’t use incomplete knowledge as an excuse for inaction. Even as we intensify our research we must carry on the work that is clearly needed.

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