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From the February 2013 Conservationist

A patch of extremely dry and cracked pale gray mud


Recommendations for adopting to a changing climate

By Jonathan Comstock

This past March, I put some snowshoes in the trunk of my car and drove to Tupper Lake to give a talk at the Wild Center. My presentation was a public prelude to a meeting of the Adirondack Climate and Energy Action Planning group (ADKCAP), and interest in it was heightened by the abnormally early snowmelt that had rendered my snowshoes useless baggage. Snowshoes would normally be required for any trail excursion in Tupper Lake in March.

In 2009, I joined a team of scientists commissioned by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to draft a report-called the ClimAID report-explaining our society's vulnerability to climate change, and detailing how we might adapt to it. My role was to help with the Ecosystems and Agriculture sections, overseen by Cornell University's David Wolfe.

Following the publishing of the report in 2011, I and many members involved in that effort have traveled across New York and the region to educate the public. People everywhere want to know what to expect from climate change and what they can do about it. I've met with grade-school classes, college groups, church groups, and the Science Cabaret, an informal group of people who meet regularly in Ithaca to discuss current and sometimes controversial topics in science.

Large portion of the paved surface of a coastal road collapsed
Extreme weather events caused
property damage like the coastal
erosion shown here on Staten Island.
(Photo: Gerard Miller)

Climate is fundamental to the human experience. We tend to view climate as a permanent feature, like a mountain, lake or valley, even though natural change occurs, albeit slowly. Significant shifts in climate, like going from the last ice age to our current climate, generally occur over tens of thousands of years. What concerns most scientists today is the rate of change -temperature increases projected for the next 100 years may be as dramatic as those that separate us from the last ice age, thousands of years ago. At that pace (up to 100 times faster than the transition from the last ice age), by the year 2100 the resulting warmer temperatures could cause New York's landscape to change from its current maple-beech-birch forests to a pine-oak woodland that is characteristic of today's mid-south. This could mean major stand die-offs of trees due to their inability to adapt quickly enough, as well as from disease, insect outbreak, and extreme heat or drought. On the other hand, if this change were to occur much more slowly, gradual competition, recruitment and replacement could occur, one tree and one generation at a time.

One concern in such scenarios is that foreign invasive species might co-opt the transitions. By their very nature, invasive species are specialists in rapid colonization from afar, and in fast growth. Their presence might lead to entire new communities with little room for our native species, rather than the intuitive progression of southern forests shifting their range northward across the continent in a manner akin to ice-age advances and retreats.

Scientists are working to fend off these invaders. At the front line of this battle in New York State is the Partnerships for Regional Invasive Species Management network. PRISM consists of eight regional groups of scientists and volunteers charged with coordinating invasive species partner efforts, recruiting and training citizen volunteers, identifying and delivering education and outreach, establishing early detection monitoring networks and implementing direct eradication and control efforts. PRISM is active across the state and could use additional support. Consider getting involved; it's a great way to actively support the wild lands we love.

As the climate changes, other vegetation, as well as the associated wildlife species, will change. Today's land managers cannot prevent a shift in species composition, but perhaps they can help guide it. For example, we can welcome North American flora and fauna that are adapted to warmer conditions, while trying to keep out aggressive invaders from other parts of the world. We must accept that some change is inevitable, but cherish and preserve our biological heritage at the same time.

Across our state, municipal planners are trying to determine how climate change will affect their operations and infrastructure. I participated in several meetings to revise the Tompkins County Hazard Assessment, a local plan to prepare for and deal with all kinds of emergencies, from flooding to earthquake to industrial accidents. One issue discussed was the topic of more pronounced heat waves in the future, as outlined in the ClimAID report. Extreme heat accounts for more human deaths each year than does extreme cold. Heat also affects infrastructure like asphalt roads, which are more easily damaged at high temperatures. Because we can expect heat waves to be more intense, planners will have to take this into consideration when outlining their future needs and responses.

Apple blossoms and leaves coated in ice
In 2012, a lot of New York's apple
crop was lost to frost damage
following an unprecedented warm
spell that brought apple trees into bloom
a month early.(Photo: Jon Morrison)

The agricultural community is another segment of our society wrestling with the effects of climate change. Farmers are always watching the weather and trying to make the right choices for their crops. I have found that recognition of climate change is mainstream in some groups, like the Northeast Organic Farmers Association or the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, but many farmers are still skeptical that human activity can affect the climate. However, skepticism is overridden by realism when success depends on making the right choices: optimal planting dates are getting earlier; wet conditions during spring planting are an increasing challenge; new pest and weed problems will likely come with milder winters; and new plant varieties may prove more productive during longer, hotter growing seasons. Within the past few years, New York farmers lost crops to flooded fields from intense rainfall events one year, and then had reduced yields the next year because of midsummer droughts. Last autumn, fruit growers in many parts of New York lost most of their 2012 crop to frost damage, because an unprecedented March warm spell brought fruit trees into bloom a month earlier than usual. Frosts then killed the blossoms, so the apple crop was ruined.

These challenges have management solutions, but the solutions sometimes involve expensive adaptive strategies like new equipment. Making wise decisions in tight economic times depends in part on recognizing that past experience alone is an imperfect guide to a changing future. Luckily, the ClimAID report gives guidance on what to expect.

Overall, the impact of climate change on our natural ecosystems is likely to be more profound than that on agriculture, because natural ecosystems will largely need to adapt themselves. The projected change in climate this century would require an average range shift for all species of several hundred miles (mostly moving northward or significantly higher in elevation) across the landscape.

Two polar bears walking on ice flows
Photo: Kelly Elliot, NOAA Office of
Ocean Exploration

Can species do it on their own? For some, the answer is yes. Birds and other mobile creatures are already showing shifts in their breeding range and overwintering habitats. Not all creatures have wings, however, and for those who do successfully move with the climate, will the species they depend on for habitat and food be there, too?

In many cases the best thing we can do for these assemblages of immobile wild species is ensure that they aren't trapped in "wilderness islands" with no way to reach the next available habitat. We must manage our wild lands to retain bands of connection across the entire landscape, not just in island-like preserves. Many organizations from state and federal agencies, to non-governmental organizations like The Nature Conservancy, to local land-trusts, are working hard to achieve this, but they all need your help because they are struggling against suburban sprawl and development. We need coherent regional plans to meld economic development with ecosystem health.

The prospect of holding climate change in check seems remote today, not because of a lack of technical ability, but because most people have not made arresting climate change a personal top priority. I'm certain that in time, driven by accumulating effects, we will demand effective action, both of ourselves and of our leaders. But how much will our climate change before that happens?

Whether wild or managed, New York's landscape faces a future of upheaval and transition. How much is saved, and what is lost will depend, in part, on each of us. Now is the time for both individual and collective action, as our choices define how society will adapt to the global changes set in motion by our energy consumption and land-use practices.

Jonathan Comstock is a research support specialist in Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences