Scientists: Climate change is hitting N.Y.

The 10 hottest years on record have all been in the past 20 years

ALBANY — From Niagara Falls to the eastern tip of the Long Island peninsula, from Lake Champlain to the Allegany State Park, New Yorkers are experiencing the impacts of global climate change.

Researchers at Cornell University in Ithaca are projecting that summers in New York will become increasingly uncomfortable as the number of days with scorching temperatures increases.

This trend, they predict, is likely to produce an increase in heat-related illnesses and could tax the power grid as people cope with heat waves by using more air conditioning.

State officials say there is overwhelming proof to support the argument that human activities — namely, the burning of fossil fuels — have accelerated the pace of global warming.

"There are numerous lines of evidence that humans have put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and we've done that primarily by combusting fossil fuel," said Mark Lowery, an analyst with the Office of Climate Change.

CO2 levels in the atmosphere began to increase amid the Industrial Revolution more than a century ago, with levels now about 40 percent higher than they were then, said Lowery, whose bureau is an offshoot of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

"That extra CO2 traps more heat, which can only warm the Earth system and drive changes such as sea-level rise, stronger storms and more extreme precipitation," he said.

The average temperature across the Northeastern states has risen by 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970, a trend Cornell scientists project will continue.

The temperature rise has been more dramatic for winter months, with the average thermometer reading for the cold season 4 degrees warmer than five decades earlier.

The Cornell projection suggests New York will see even warmer winters in the years ahead, with the average temperature for those months increasing by 3 to 5.5 degrees by the 2050s.

With the warming trend expected to create challenges for ski-area operators and recreational fishing programs, the tourism and recreation industries, which have become vital to the upstate economy, could also be impacted, climate change experts suggest.

Winter snow cover is projected to be reduced by 25 to 50 percent by the end of this century.

In the Adirondack and Catskill parks, the Cornell projections suggest, the spruce forests will eventually be wiped out.

Weather-related impacts are likely to hit farmers with the significant force.

Some impacts from a longer growing season, researchers suggest, would benefit farms by giving them an opportunity to produce crops best suited for warmer climates, such as peaches and water melon.

However, farms that specialize in more "high value" crops, such as apples, cabbage and potatoes, are seen as more vulnerable to heat-induced crop damage and losses.

Meanwhile, DEC has adopted climate projections forecasting an increase in intense rainstorms, as well as short-duration summer season droughts, such as the one that hit parts of the upstate region in the summer of 2016.

And as ocean levels and water in the Hudson River estuary rise, shoreline regions are expected to become more vulnerable to flooding.

To counter climate change at the local level, state officials are encouraging New York municipalities to enlist in the Climate Smart Communities program, overseen by Lowery and his boss, Lois New, director of the Office of Climate Change.

To date, 210 cities, towns and villages have enrolled in the program, which provides incentives for coming up with strategies to increase energy efficiency and reduce reliance on fuels that produce greenhouse gases.

Another way the state is responding to climate change is through its participation in a coalition of nine Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states that, in August, agreed to expand on planned steep cuts in power-plant pollution by 2030.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has directed that the state increase its reliance on renewable sources of energy so that by 2030 they provide at least 50 percent of the state's energy mix.

He has said that continuing to rely on natural gas as a bridge is necessary to get to that goal.

Still another impact to New York from climate change is the migration of "hurricane refugees" to the state from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands after death-dealing storms devastated those Caribbean territories in October.

Judith Enck, who served as regional U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator overseeing New York and those territories during the Obama administration, said many families who lost their homes in those storms are considering moves to New York.

"They are a good example of climate refugees," said Enck, who spent two weeks in the U.S. Virgin Islands in the aftermath of the hurricane there to assist in recovery efforts. "A lot of people are heading to New York because that's where they know people."

Enck, who had also held a top post in the administration of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, maintained that New York could take a more vigorous approach to cutting carbon emissions by committing to a goal of 100 percent reliance on renewable sources

He said that when the power from the New York Power Authority's hydroelectric generating stations in Niagara Falls and Schoharie County is subtracted, "what New York is producing from renewables is shockingly low."

Given the high stakes and the current trajectory pointing to worsening impacts, Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, D-Manhattan, a member of the Assembly Environmental Committee, said promoting sustainability of resources has become increasingly important in land use and agriculture policy.

She called for a renewed effort to connect farmers with solar-power technology to help them trim their high energy bills, a move that, in her view, would also benefit those who value the upstate region's abundance of open spaces and pastoral vistas.

"If we can cut that energy expense for farmers dramatically," Glick said, "it could mean the difference between farms staying in business or going out of business."

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