Scientists Say Climate Change is Dramatically Affecting
Imagine the Buffalo summer in 2050. It's hot the way summers
used to be hot in the Maryland panhandle, before it got
hotter there, too.
Broad sandy beaches
line Lake Erie. Bathers enjoy this new weather extreme
as if it were an antidote to Buffalo's other new weather
extreme: a big increase in precipitation, sometimes in
the form of blizzards, but mostly rain.
One thing is
missing from this lakeside scene: the ships. They disappeared
as the beaches appeared, driven out of business by the
new low water levels.
These new hot
summers are imperfect in other ways, too. Shallower water
means pollutants are more concentrated, wreaking havoc
for local water authorities.
The Niagara flows
so slowly now that the river's great hydropower project
is a historic relic.
And the woods
to the south and the east of the city aren't what they
once were since the maple trees started dying off.
Welcome to Western
New York in the age of global warming. In some ways it's
oddly reminiscent of 2001 and 2002.
Just like then,
winters pack an early wallop, and summers range from sultry
In other words,
the Buffalo of your children's future is likely to be
very different than the one you know, the Buffalo of consistent
but not crazy lake effect snow, the Buffalo of soft summer
breezes and radiant fall colors.
Of course, that
future scenario is just that - a projection of what very
well could happen if the scientific models prove to be
true. If they do, global warming will remake Western New
"It's going to
affect everything," said Rich Thomas, chief of water management
at the Army Corps of Engineers in Buffalo, where the impact
of climate change is a growing concern.
reflect a dramatic change in the global warming debate.
A decade ago, the question was whether "greenhouse gases"
- the kind that spew out of your car and into the atmosphere
- are increasing temperatures across the globe.
Yet after the
warmest decade in recorded history, most scientists regard
global warming as a reality, though there's still a political
debate about what ought to be done about it.
In fact, after
the Environmental Protection Agency recently produced
a report spelling out dire consequences, President Bush
dismissed it as the product of "bureaucrats" and defended
his own plan to limit the increases in greenhouse gases
rather than cut their output.
predict some big changes ahead.
"For the Great
Lakes region, the next century could bring one of the
greatest environmental transformations since the end of
the last Ice Age," the EPA said in a study on global warming
in the Great Lakes.
are expected to rise, on average, from 31/2
to 9 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century. Temperatures
in Western New York might come to resemble what western
Maryland experiences today, according to David Easterling,
chief scientist for the National Climatic Data Center.
in Lake Erie
rise, Lake Erie as we know it would be transformed. Like
the rest of the Great Lakes, it would start to evaporate,
meaning water levels would fall by as much as five feet
over the next century. Most scientists expect the bulk
of the drop to occur in the next few decades. The remaining
water would be warmer and might never freeze during winter.
There is a plus
"You'd have some
nice wide sand beaches," said Frank Quinn, retired head
of the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in
Ann Arbor, Mich.
But that's about
where the plus side ends.
Fed by greater
evaporation from the Great Lakes, overall precipitation
could increase 10 to 20 percent, the EPA says.
"A lot of scientists
mention getting fewer storms but of greater intensity,"
said Helen Domske, a researcher at the University at Buffalo's
Great Lakes Program. "What could be a better description
of last winter?"
In the first
few decades of warming, lake-effect snowstorms could be
more frequent, thanks to Lake Erie's refusal to freeze.
But Easterling said temperatures will probably warm to
the point where lake-effect rain is increasingly common.
As a result, lake-effect snow could decrease by half within
is exactly when it will be warm enough for the snow to
the warmer temperatures would pick up more of Lake Erie
and deposit it on the land. And that would create all
sorts of problems.
Great Lakes ships
have to reduce their cargo load every time the level of
the lakes drops, said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of
the Lake Carriers' Association. And if the lakes dropped
by five feet, the smaller loads would boost the cost of
shipping so much that shippers might have to switch to
the rails or trucks.
"This could conceivably
put the Great Lakes shipping industry out of business,"
It could do the
very same thing to the New York State Power Authority's
Niagara Power Project. When lake levels fell last year,
the project's power output fell by as much as 20 percent.
And last year's lake drop was minuscule compared to what's
expected in the future.
As a result,
the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory predicts
"greatly reduced electricity generation there under low
look much better for municipalities such as Buffalo that
get their water from the lake or its adjoining rivers.
Thomas, of the Army Corps of Engineers, said most water
intakes in the Great Lakes basin are located in spots
where the water would likely be much more polluted if
lake levels were lower. That could force hugely expensive
improvements in local water plants.
problem will be the water intakes," Thomas said. "The
quality of the water won't be as good."
You might think
that all of these problems might be solved through increased
dredging, but that's unlikely. Costs would easily reach
well into the billions of dollars, and by solving the
water-level problem, the dredging could cause another:
finding a safe place for all the contaminated sediment
that would be removed.
might run dry
say the shallower, warmer water could pose problems beyond
the lakes, too. People who get their water from shallow
wells might find them running dry.
Brook trout could
become increasingly rare in the Great Lakes basin, pushed
aside by warmer-water fish such as bass and walleye.
And Western New
York's forests would come to look far different, too.
Maple, beech and birch trees now dominate much of the
forest cover in Western New York, but many researchers
expect oak and pine to come to dominate over the next
century. Fall would be far less colorful.
"No, you're not
going to have a dead-looking forest," said Ann Fisher,
an environmental economist at Penn State who headed the
study of the Mid-Atlantic region in a recent national
assessment of global warming. "You'd just have a gradual
Of course, that's
just a prediction. Scientists caution that they're basing
their descriptions of the future on climate models that
may or may not be accurate. And there's debate among the
scientists about those models.
scientists generally regard warming as a matter of fact
now. "The consensus is getting very solid," said Reg Gilbert,
senior coordinator at Great Lakes United, a Buffalo-based
What's less certain
is exactly what should be done.
Bush has proposed
a plan that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 18
percent, relative to the size of the economy, over the
next decade. "The president's plan is predicated on ensuring
the strength and growth of the American economy," said
James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council
on Environmental Quality.
plan "science fiction'
opponents and many environmentalists say the Bush plan
won't do nearly enough to curb greenhouse gases. For one
thing, the administration refused to sign the Kyoto protocol,
an international agreement to curb global warming. And
for another, the plan it did put forward would allow overall
emissions of greenhouse gases to increase.
Add it all up
and the Bush plan for addressing climate change is nothing
but "science fiction," said Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts
Democrat who may run for president in 2004.
looking toward the future, though, climate change is already
a reality. Fisher, the Penn State economist, notes that
she looked for benefits that might spring from global
warming in the Mid-Atlantic. "It was very difficult to
identify benefits," she said. "The damaging impacts tend
to be larger."