Richard L. Gast, Extension program educator II, Horticulture, Natural Resources, Energy, agriculture programs assistant, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County, 355 West Main St., Suite 150, Malone, 12953. Phone 483-7403, fax 483-6214 or email

Climate assessment a cautionary tale

By: Richard Gast, Cornell Ag Connection

The 800-page 2014 National Climate Assessment, which involved more than 300 scientists, engineers and technical experts, was released last month confirming that climate change is an existing threat and accepting that many predictions made a decade ago are “happening now,” as one co-author of the report’s chapter on the 12 northeastern states puts it.

David Wolfe, a professor of Horticulture and chair of the climate-change focus group at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell, has been studying the impacts on plants, soils and ecosystems for 20 years.

He said two things in particular have surprised him; the accelerating pace of the changes and the continued reluctance of policymakers to act. This report, he recently told interviewers, signals that the country is “beginning to move beyond the debate about whether climate change is real or not, and really getting down to rolling up our sleeves.”

The report states that, on average, temperatures in the U.S. have risen by roughly 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1895, with 80 percent of that change occurring since the early 1980s. Annual rainfall in the Northeast has increased by five inches since 1900, with coastal sea levels rising by nearly one foot. During that time, sea temperatures have risen as well, by nearly 2 degrees.

In recent decades, climate change has been connected to intensifying heat waves, increasing precipitation, torrential downpours, more violent weather, sea-level rise and greater occurrence of flooding and storm surge. Coastal flooding has caused billions of dollars in damage and things could get much worse as seas are projected to rise 1 to 4 feet by the end of this century.

It hypothesizes that “heat waves, coastal flooding and river flooding will pose a growing challenge to the region’s environmental, social and economic systems,” and goes on to say that “this will increase the vulnerability of the region’s residents, especially its most disadvantaged populations.”

I find the outlook extremely disturbing and can’t help but recall how, in 2012, Superstorm Sandy plowed into New York City, causing an unprecedented 13-foot surge of seawater, which flooded tunnels and subway stations and forced New York City’s main utility to cut power to 6,500 customers in lower Manhattan, stopping stock trading for two consecutive days for the first time since 1888.

Just over one year earlier, Hurricane Irene devastated much of our region with powerful winds and driving rains that forced creeks and rivers over their banks. Flooding washed out several roads, leaving individual households and whole communities stranded by high water, debris and mud. The towns of Keene, Keene Valley, Jay and Upper Jay were effectively left isolated.

Roads that serve Lake Placid and Wilmington were closed as high winds felled trees and collapsed power and telephone lines. Flooding weakened bridge structures and eroded roadbeds. Emergency radio was off the air as the fire station in Keene was swept away.

Erosion and blowdown in the High Peaks were extensive. A few trails still remain closed, while detours and challenging conditions still exist along several others. The bridge over Marcy Dam along the Van Hoevenberg Trail, the most popular route up Mount Marcy, was washed away. Damage to the iconic dam resulted in the pond being drained and was so severe that the state Department of Environmental Conservation elected to dismantle rather than rebuild it.

Agriculture is being profoundly impacted, too. In 2012, many New York apple growers lost large percentages of their crops after trees, which bloomed weeks and in some cases months early, were hit by a late spring freeze. Last year, at least one third, and by some estimates one half, of the European varieties of grapevines in New York State were damaged by fluctuations in weather, with several producers losing their entire crop. 

The report also states that populations of destructive insects are on the rise, as milder winters make it easier for them to survive and expand their ranges. It also mentions that precipitation, although predicted to be heavier in winter and spring, is expected to be less in summer and fall, resulting in more droughts during the growing season, and adds that, since 1958, the Northeast has seen a 71 percent increase in “very heavy” storms.

Also, Cornell University researchers, in a recent, unrelated report, stated that in the Northeast days with at least two inches of rainfall have increased from just one annually in the 1950s to more than six since the start of this decade.

Richard L. Gast, Extension program educator II, Horticulture, Natural Resources, Energy; agriculture programs assistant, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County, 355 West Main St., Suite 150, Malone, 12953. Call 483-7403, fax 483-6214 or email

OTHER POTENTIAL LOCAL IMPACTS -- An increased numbers of extreme heat events, especially in cities with high concentrations of ground-level ozone, which will most likely result in greater numbers of heat-related deaths, especially among the young, the elderly and the infirm. -- Increased potency of plant allergens -- More widespread occurrence of diseases linked to ticks, mosquitoes, and other insects.