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Climate Change Impacts in New York

Already happening, but it's not too late

Greenhouse gases (GHGs) are much more abundant in earth's atmosphere today than at the start of the Industrial Revolution. As the heat-trapping "blanket" of GHGs in the atmosphere grows denser, it retains more and more heat and the earth warms.

An ominous example is carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas emitted from fuel-burning. Since pre-industrial times its average concentration in the atmosphere has risen by some 40 percent to 393 parts per million, higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years. In spring of 2013, an unprecedented 400 parts-per-million seasonal CO2 peak attracted worldwide attention.

Earth's weather is driven by heat energy. As trapped heat builds up in the land, oceans and lower atmosphere, the predictable weather patterns that we call "climate" are changing. Science is able to project how the earth's climate will respond as GHGs accumulate, but how fast and exactly where specific changes will occur are still not well known. New York's 2011 ClimAID study (see link at right) includes both observations of impacts already occurring and projections of impacts expected later this century.

Some climate change impacts are already observable

Two tree trunks with maple collection buckets attached
Earlier springs threaten maple syrup
productionand other traditional New York
agricultural enterprises

Recent climate assessments have identified some key impacts of climate change that already have begun in New York and the northeastern U.S.:

  • Annual average temperatures have been rising in New York for a century. The fastest increase has occurred since 1970, with state average temperatures rising by approximately 2.4º F and winter warming exceeding 4º F.
  • Winter snow cover is decreasing and spring comes (on average) a week or so earlier than it did a few decades ago; in many areas of New York, blooming dates have advanced by as much as 8 days.
  • The ranges of birds that traditionally breed in New York have moved northward by as much as 40 miles in the past two decades.
  • Average nighttime temperatures have risen faster than daytime temperatures and are measurably higher than they were in 1970.
  • Summer heat waves are more intense, with heat-related illness and death projected to increase.
  • Intense precipitation events (heavy downpours) are occurring more often.
  • Sea levels along New York's ocean coast are approximately a foot higher than in 1900.
  • Vector-borne infections and diseases spread by mosquitoes and ticks, such as West Nile virus and Lyme disease, are becoming more widespread throughout New York. Current changes in temperature and precipitation favor the survival of insects and other disease vectors.

Climate change impacts will worsen

Carbon dioxide and other important GHGs remain in the atmosphere for decades or even centuries, guaranteeing continued climate change even after emissions start to decline. With no global reduction of GHG emissions yet in sight, scientists project that the earth will retain increasing amounts of heat and climate change will persist and intensify.

  • By mid-century, New York's winter temperatures are projected to rise by another 2.5º F to 4º F, and summer temperatures by 1.5º F to 3.5º F, setting us up for heat waves and other extreme weather that is beyond previous experience.
  • Current global emissions of GHGs could result in sea levels along New York's ocean coast rising by up to 31 inches by the 2050s due to expansion of warming seawater and melting of land ice. Sea level would rise less if greenhouse gas emissions begin to decline soon, but will continue to rise for some time even if GHG emissions cease.
  • More frequent and intense flooding from extreme rains and storm surges will threaten public safety and damage developed areas, roadways and other infrastructure, as well as natural systems and protective barriers.
  • Following a pattern already becoming evident, short-term droughts are expected to increase in frequency, with weeks of dry conditions punctuated by rains too intense for parched soils to absorb.
  • Winter snow cover will likely be reduced enough to affect the recreation industry.
  • Soil erosion will increase and replenishment of drinking water sources will become less reliable as snowpack dwindles and more rainwater is lost to runoff.
  • Some cool-weather plants and animals that have traditionally lived in New York (such as sugar maples and some marine species) may move northward to a cooler climate.
  • Mosquitoes and other pests may become more abundant. It is not difficult to imagine the disruption and economic costs if even one of these projected climate change impacts comes to pass. Increased warming, however, would likely set off impacts throughout New York's environment, economy and society.

We still can control our climate future

Some of the GHGs emitted today will remain in the atmosphere for centuries. So today's GHG emissions are shaping the climate that next-century New Yorkers will experience. If we reduce emissions in the near future, future risk from climate change will be lower.
Already, previous emissions have locked in some costs for adapting communities and infrastructure to new climate conditions. But failure to reduce emissions now will compound future change, making its impacts even more disruptive and costly.

New York State and local communities are confronting GHG emissions and working toward climate change resilience. Energy and Climate Solutions describes state programs. Climate Smart Communities lists localities that have signed on to low-carbon measures and describes their climate-smart programs. For individuals who want to start combating climate change now, DEC's Green Living page features low-carbon actions.

More about Climate Change Impacts in New York:

  • Sea Level Rise - Assessed impacts to the state's coastlines from rising seas and developed recommendations for protective and adaptive measures. The Task Force delivered its final report to the Legislature on December 31, 2010.
  • Climate Change and Health - This page provides offsite links to other state and federal agencies that address the effect of climate change on public health.