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U.S. observed temperature change since 1895, with an inset showing change in the Northeast. Image: <a href="">National Climate Assessment</a>
U.S. observed temperature change since 1895, with an inset showing change in the Northeast. Image: National Climate Assessment

Five ways climate change is already affecting your life (or will soon)

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Tuesday, the federal government released the most comprehensive scientific report on climate change in the U.S. ever produced (find the full report here, and find an overview here). Its message is clear and urgent.

It says human-caused climate change is happening now and it's affecting our everyday lives. Jerry Melillo is the study's co-author. "It is affecting us in our pocketbooks and on our land in every region of the United States," Melillo said at the White House rollout of the report (the Northeast regional report.) "It is changing the lives of farmers, mayors, engineers, town planners, truckers, and foresters." Many Republicans in Congress dismissed the report as "alarmist."

The report is the third National Climate Assessment, the first in six years. Its findings have implications for North Country agriculture, disease, and the health of the Adirondack Park. Here are five big takeaways:

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1. Much, much, more rain: A 71 percent increase of "heavy precipitation events" is already happening in the Northeast, which has experienced a greater recent increase in extreme precipitation than any other region in the United States. Between 1895 and 2011, precipitation increased by about five inches, or more than 10 percent: that's .4 inches per decade.

David Wolfe is a professor of plant and soil ecology at Cornell University and the lead author of the Northeast region section of the study. "When the rain does come, it comes down heavy, and so that creates short-term flooding. So for everything from farmers to natural ecosystems to homeowners, these flooding issues are a big challenge for our area."

2. Temperatures are expected to rise between three and 10 degrees in the next century, depending upon how we manage carbon emissions. If emissions continue to increase, warming of 4.5º to 10º is projected by the 2080s; if global emissions are reduced substantially, it could heat up by about 3º to 6º by the 2080s. Either way, it's expected that the frequency, intensity and duration of heat waves will increase. That will impact vulnerable populations, infrastructure, agriculture and ecosystems in our region.

Wolfe says that temperature increase is on top of the greater than 1.5º increase recorded in the Northeast over the last century. "The horse is already out of the barn, you might say, and we're going to be dealing with adaptation to climate change."

Observed change in very heavy precipitation in the U.S. Image: <a href="">National Climate Assessment</a>
Observed change in very heavy precipitation in the U.S. Image: National Climate Assessment
3. Climate change could mean more Lyme disease, West Nile Virus and waterborne disease. Most Lyme disease in the U.S. happens in the Northeast. It's not exactly clear how climate change will impact Lyme disease, but several studies have linked tick activity and Lyme disease to climate: specifically, to moist late springs and early summers.

Meanwhile, we may also see an uptick in West Nile Virus. Here's why: Habitat for the Asian Tiger Mosquito, which transmits the disease (and several others), will increase radically by the end of the century, from 5 percent to 49 percent. This change would expose more than 30 million people to the threat of "dense infestations" by the Asian Tiger.

Another potential health impact: Many Northeast cities are served by combined sewer systems that collect and treat both stormwater and wastewater, and these systems can get overwhelmed when it rains heavily. This has been associated with stomach illness in more than one city; More frequent heavy rains could mean an increase in these kinds of waterborne diseases.

Damage from 2011's Tropical Storm Irene, in Keene, NY. Photo: Kathy Regan
Damage from 2011's Tropical Storm Irene, in Keene, NY. Photo: Kathy Regan
4. Managing increased heat and pests (insect and plant!) will cost agriculture more, but climate change could present opportunities to grow new crops. You might think warmer temperatures would be a positive for agriculture, and they do lengthen the growing season in many cases (not all, though: lots of rain can delay planting and harvests, and reduce yields). But warmer temperatures also mean more pests for a couple reasons: insects such as corn earworm are arriving earlier in the year, and aggressive weeds (again, kudzu!) do much better in warmer conditions than do crop plants. Those plants also become more resistant to herbicides when carbon dioxide levels are higher in the atmosphere, as is likely to happen in coming decades.

Farmers may also find themselves needing a lot more water for crops and animals, and the report projects a potentially negative impact on crop yields and milk production. Farmers may want to adapt to climate change by exploring new crops that are better for the new environment, but as the report points out, "these adaptions are neither cost- nor risk-free."

5. Spruce-fir forests and brook trout could disappear from the Adirondacks. As ocean temperatures rise, habitats for cold water fish like brook trout will shrink, as will habitats for spruce-fir forests. Since species interactions are complex, it's not quite clear what these changes will mean in terms of what species do end up living in the region's oceans and forests.

Many insect pests, pathogens, and invasive plants (think kudzu) appear to do very well in the conditions of recent and projected climate change. Their expansion, the report predicts, will lead to an overall loss of biodiversity, function, and resilience of some ecosystems.

John Sheehan, spokesman for the environmental group The Adirondack Council, says scientists and authors in the Adirondacks have been warning of these changes for years. But he says the federal report is an important step in spreading that message. "I think everybody is watching to see what exactly happens on the ground," Sheehan says. "Providing some concrete examples of the changes we're likely to see may make it more likely for Congress to pay attention and take additional action and encourage other countries to do the same."

That's unlikely anytime soon, though, as the mere release of the report sparked finger pointing and accusations of politicizing the weather between Senators Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid, the Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate.

 Click "Listen" to hear David Sommerstein's report about the National Climate Assessment study.

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