By Zachary Matson
Climate scientist Curt Stager joined the Adirondack Explorer for a virtual discussion in October. Edited for length and clarity, here are highpoints.
Q: A new paper from Paul Smith’s College researchers raises the specter of an Adirondack Park with milder winters. Expand on your conclusion: “As long- standing traditions associated with cold, snowy winters fade into the past, the cultural ecology of human residents of the Adirondacks may well face the greatest existential challenges of all in a warming future.”
A: I was expressing my emotions. Part of it wasn’t from the data that we had collected on campus about the animals, the plants, the lake, the ice. It was from one of the papers we cited, talking about the economic and cultural effects of losing winter. The researchers looked at the climate model projections for 21 past Winter Olympic host cities. They concluded that if we go down the extreme emissions path, which the recent UN report confirmed we’re pretty much on right now, by around 2050, only four of those cities will still have winter conditions reliable for a large-scale, Olympics-type event. Fortunately, for us, Lake Placid is one. But by the end of the century, the only one left is Sapporo, Japan.
It just hit me that this is not just a compilation of 30 years of observations and records from weather stations. This is my home. I have this personal connection to winter, and I’ve come to realize other folks do too. Where we live helps determine who we are and what our culture is. And winter is the season that defines the Adirondacks most clearly. We’re headed to being more like the Blue Ridge Mountains’ kind of climate, probably sometime next century. And here I am talking in Saranac Lake. We’ve got more than 100 years of the Winter Carnival with the ice palace. We have had the Winter Olympics, we’re going to have the World University Games; we’ve got the snowmobiling mecca in Old Forge.
Q: What will this decline in winter look like in the decades ahead?
A: In the paper, we do a range of outcomes depending on how much fossil fuel emissions we release. Models put our approximate shrinkage of winter from about four months on average to about two and a half months. It’s basically cutting the length in half. The average temperatures in the deepest cold of that season, which is only going to be about a month long, will be in the high 20s. When you get into this shorter, milder winter scenario, by the end of the century, you’re going to have thaws once in a while, so it’ll wipe out some of the snow accumulation.
Q: What types of things are going to change for communities and cultures and what questions should we be working through?
A: I’m more of the climate science guy than the climate solutions guy, so I’m speculating about this as a resident. I think we Adirondack residents are the experts of what this is going to mean for us. We all have our awareness of a particular part of the woods, or an economic thing, or our town. It’s global climate change. It’s not just the Adirondacks. Summers are going to be getting longer and hotter. We’ll get at least an extra month of summer—maybe 10 degrees warmer on average. The summers will be way hotter and more unpleasant in cities. So, people are going to want to come to cooler and nicer places. I see that as climate refugees, not in the sense of people coming with their suitcases in their hands. But wealthy people coming in and saying I want a place in the country, and the Adirondacks are beautiful. I see more gentrification. We’re going to need to face housing shortages. And I think there’s going to be a temptation to remove the protections of the Adirondack Park in the future.
Q: How did what started as a nature journal harden into a formal study and how can people around the park contribute to tracking these types of changes?
A: It was just a nerdy thing. A lot of people do it—traditions of watching when the ice thaws in the spring on their local lake. At Paul Smith’s College, there’s almost a century of ice-out contests. Everybody wants to know when spring is coming. When did my flowers bloom? The only way you know something is changing is if you compare it to what it was before. It’s not going to come from some weather station or a satellite. It’s going to come from people looking at the world around them. When do the bugs bite? When is peak foliage? When do the birds migrate? When did you see the monarchs coming? When are the turtles sunning themselves? Keep the data and pass them on.
Q: A viewer asked, “has winter wimped out?”
A: The weather records show that, but the bigger thing is to look at what the effects of that are. I’m 66, and I remember the cold winters when I was a little kid, all the snow was over my head. Well, part of it was because I was a little kid, and part of it was I was a little kid in the 1960s. It was unusually cold then, and you can see it in the weather records. But if you superimpose the full story, it’s been increasing for a century with ups and downs. Yes, you may well remember winter being cooler, but even before the 1960s, 30 degrees below zero nights were not uncommon at all here. I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen that.