Park Perspectives: A different kind of beauty?

Melting ice on the Bloomingdale bog. Photo by Susan Bibeau

By Tom Woodman

Years ago my wife and I sat out a week’s vacation in our Adirondack cabin, watching a lovely snowscape evaporate into the dripping fog of a winter thaw. We tried to buck up our spirits by declaring that this scene was not really dismal. It was a different kind of beauty.

This year, as we waited for the temperatures to settle in to proper winter depths and the snow to finally fall we had plenty of occasion to resort to the “different beauty” philosophy. I’ll admit that it became tinged with bitterness from time to time, but there is still truth in it. We could hike the forest trails we’d hoped to be skiing. Deer appeared in great number, and the ermine that visits our home from time to time was easier to spot without a deep blanket of snow providing camouflage for its white coat.

Yes, there’s an element of Pollyanna in this attitude. But think of it as an exercise in “adaptation,” a concept we are hearing more and more about as we realize that climate change is upon us.

I understand the difference between weather and climate and know that this winter’s tepid beginning may be a short-term weather pattern rather than the advent of a new long-term climate. But if it’s not climate change in action, it is a convincing picture of what the change will be like. Temperatures warm enough to turn a snowfall into a rain or ice storm. Disruption of winter conditions that shape the natural environment and power a human economy that depends on winter recreation. It’s not a pretty sight, but then again we may need to see its different kind of beauty. We’ll need to adapt.

The science on climate change is moving forward. It has documented warming and established convincing models for its future course, with differing consequences, depending on the rate of greenhouse-gas emissions. And it is adding studies of how communities and policy-makers need to adapt to these changes.

Adaptation is the subject of an important study released last fall by the state Energy Research and Development Authority called Responding to Climate Change in New York State. It’s also the theme of the influential book Eaarth, by Bill McKibben.

The state study examined key sectors of New York’s economy, dividing the state into geographical regions. It analyzed the forecasted impact of warming and suggested ways that we will have to adapt to those changes. Among the findings are some that are particularly sobering for the Adirondacks: tourism will be especially hard hit and in need of help adapting; and small businesses like those the Adirondacks depends on will be less able to respond because they lack the capital to invest in adaptive technologies. The Olympic Regional Development Authority has been able to provide Whiteface and Gore with extensive snowmaking systems, for instance. But small local ski areas and cross-country-ski centers are out of luck, and eventually out of business, if there is no natural snow.

From the maple-syrup industry to hunting and fishing, from skiing to snowmobiling, key pillars of the Adirondack way of life will be transformed by climate change. If winter recreation melts away, so will big pieces of the Northeast economy. Statewide, ski areas generate $1 billion a year in revenue and create ten thousand jobs, according to Responding to Climate Change. In a six-state region of the Northeast, snowmobiling is a $3 billion-a-year business.

Each sector of the economy and each region of the state has its own factors to consider. The specific adaptation strategies will be varied and complicated. In the Adirondacks, for instance, policy-makers must take climate change into account when considering how to plan for floods like the one that devastated the Ausable River valley in Tropical Storm Irene. They must develop new forestry and agricultural strategies for species that can sustain themselves in a new Adirondack climate. They will need to maintain biodiversity and fend off intrusions by invasive species. The tourist industry must find ways to remain at the heart of the Adirondack economy and character.

We need to adapt, but that’s not the same thing as surrendering. We have to keep fighting the surge of climate change through conservation and rational energy policies even though some is inevitable. It will be better or worse depending on how we succeed both at adaptation and prevention. Bill McKibben, at the conclusion of Eaarth, says this:

The momentum of the heating, and the momentum of the economy that powers it, can’t be turned off quickly enough to prevent hideous damage. But we will keep fighting, in the hope that we can limit that damage. … We still must live on the world we’ve created—lightly, carefully, gracefully.

That effort has started here. The work of ecologist Jerry Jenkins with the Wildlife Conservation Society has presented a framework of what warming means for our region. The Wild Center’s Wintergreen Conference in 2010 explored the cultural and emotional implications of losing winter.

Entrepreneurs Dave Mason and Jim Herman, working with the Common Ground Alliance, developed a program called Mapping the Future of the Adirondack Park for policy-makers and others to think and talk about different shapes an Adirondack future might take.

The impending consequences of our warming climate run like an ominous current through these events. But remarkably, and encouragingly, they haven’t been all gloom and doom. Many in the Adirondacks have recognized the challenge and are determined to rise to the occasion.

These conversations are essential, and we need to use them to arrive at concrete, real-world plans. It’s far from apparent how an area dependent on winter recreation should respond as winter diminishes. But it’s not a theoretical question, and it’s critical that all those who care about the Adirondacks stay engaged in finding some answers.

About Adirondack Explorer

The Adirondack Explorer is a nonprofit magazine covering the Adirondack Park's environment, recreation and communities.

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