Paul Smith’s climate researchers forecast decline of outdoors culture, species disruption
By Zachary Matson
A new paper from Paul Smith’s College researchers raises the specter of an Adirondack Park without the winter weather that has long shaped the region’s culture and economy.
Temperatures in the Adirondack region on average increased about 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900 and have reduced ice coverage on Lower St. Regis Lake by about a week in the past century. The diminution of winter weather will continue over the coming decades, but the pace and extent remain open to human mitigation, according to the study.
“It’s inevitable that winter as we know it will end,” said Curt Stager, a climate scientist at Paul Smith’s College and co-author with Brendan Wiltse and Skylar Murphy of the paper published this month. “It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but going a couple of generations forward we are not going to have reliable snow.”
If the planet as a whole continues carbon emissions at current levels, the Adirondacks could see winters shortened by as much as a month by 2100 as springs arrive earlier and summers grow in length. The best case scenario contemplated, one in which society controls emissions and transitions to renewable energy sources, would result in winters about two weeks shorter by the end of the century and a continued loss of reliable snow and ice throughout the next century, Stager’s team estimated.
The paper concludes that the cultural impact of a shorter winter could pose a greater change to the region than the risks faced by any particular plant or animal species. Stager said the identity of Adirondack communities has long been shaped by winter activities and the region will have to adapt to less reliable winter weather.
“This whole sense of who we are is going to be at risk of fading away more than any individual species,” Stager said. “You can’t count on the snow, and winter becomes not a time of beauty and opportunity and pleasure, it becomes a time of inconvenience.”
Published in the journal PLOS Climate, the paper drew on 30 years of observational data collected on the Paul Smith’s campus, where Stager and students have tracked the annual behaviors of plants and animals that mark seasonal changes and measured water temperatures. When do birds arrive? When do trillium, trout lily and pussy willow sprout and flower? When do native pollinators emerge from their nests?
The timing of important milestones in the life cycles of plants and animals, known as phenology, could be pushed one to three weeks earlier by 2100 as temperatures continue to warm, the paper found. The extent of the changes are dependent on how much greenhouse gas emissions end up in the atmosphere and, critically, will vary from species to species.
“We know the region is going to keep warming,” Stager said. “As it warms, these animals and plants that depend on each other change when they come out in the spring and their interactions will have to change.”
As the timing of different behaviors change, the fragile ecological relationships species rely on become increasingly disrupted. Wildflowers and pollinators, for example, count on each other for continued survival. Native ground-dwelling bees that rely on the pollen of pussy willows on the campus already have a short window of time in the spring to collect the willow pollen to store in their nests. While the bees may emerge earlier, the pussy willow pollen may jump even further ahead in the spring, shortening pollen-gathering time.
“The amount of time available to the bees, which is already short, will be lessened,” Stager said.
While trillium and trout lily may sprout earlier under warming conditions, they may also face more light competition from trees that leaf out earlier. Countless other inter-species interactions around the region could be altered, and the speed of the temperature changes could limit the adaptability of species to the broader ecological disruptions.
Climate change researchers at the Adirondack Ecological Center in Newcomb have also tracked the timing of seasonal plant and animal behaviors.
Adirondack spring temperatures since 1990 have remained relatively level, despite the broader warming trend, and muted the statistical significance of relationships observed in the study. But temperatures rose dramatically in the fall, increasing lake temperatures in September and October. Lake surface temperature on Lower St. Regis Lake increased about 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1990.
The extension of warmer water in the fall has delayed the important mixing of stratified lakes, reducing oxygen-rich habitat for cold-water fish like trout. The fall lake warming could also exacerbate the growth of harmful algal blooms, Stager said.
Stager said people across the Adirondacks can help study climate change by collecting local observations about when plants and animals arrive, emerge or undertake other annual processes. They should note when plants, flowers or birds show up in yards, he suggested. He said the study of trends on the Paul Smith’s campus grew out of a nature journal he started in 1990.
“Anyone can do this if you do it consistently,” Stager said.