Climate change is a culture war flash point in America. The fight over global warming and what to do about it is likely to shape next year’s presidential election. But scientists here in the North Country say they’re no longer asking if the climate is changing.
They’re now measuring real-world impacts: everything from sharp declines in bird populations to the rapid spread of human diseases carried by deer ticks.
It’s getting warmer and wetter, reaching a tipping point
Climate change is super incredibly complicated. That’s one reason why even now a lot of people don’t believe it. So at a meeting of the Adirondack Park Agency this month, Celia Evans a professor at Paul Smiths College boiled it down to a simple idea: temperature and moisture shape our world.
“All you really have to know is what the mean annual temperature and precipitation are to predict what plant communities will be in a place,” she said.
Translation: a lot of the time, those two factors, how wet it is and how warm it is, will shape what life is like for plants and then animals and also for us humans.
A little colder and you might get boreal forest with black spruce trees. A little warmer and you get a temperate deciduous forest with maple trees. A little dryer, maybe you get grassland rather than forest.
Here’s what’s interesting and troubling. The Adirondack North Country sits at the very edge of these moisture and temperature boundaries – so even a small variation could change things a lot.
“We are on the edge of the boreal biome. Places on the globe similar to this, on the edges of these biomes, are likely to be the ones that will see the changes in temperature and moisture sooner. The Adirondacks are absolutely one of those places.”
“It’s real, it’s caused by us”
At this meeting, three Paul Smiths College professors studying really different aspects of the natural world said their data indicates the same thing. The world is warming, and the Adirondacks are warming even faster.
“Yes, climate change caused by people is real, it’s caused by us,” said Curt Stager. He’s a professor who, like Evans, has studied climate and biological changes all over the world.
He says some of the strongest evidence that the atmosphere is warming is found in data collected from weather stations here in the Adirondacks.
“In the case of Lake Placid average temperature if you take the whole year together has increased about 3.5 degrees F in the last three decades or so,” he said. “So, it’s definitely happening here.”
Researchers in the North Country say that temperature increase and variabilities in rainfall already seem to be affecting bird species. They’ve measured a significant decline in northern birds that would be at the edge of their range here in the Adirondacks.
Rise of the ticks
There’s also growing evidence that the warmer wetter climate in the North Country is helping another organism spread into our region.
Lee Ann Sporn is a professor and researcher at Paul Smiths who studies the spread of deer ticks and related human diseases including Lyme disease. She echoed the idea that the Adirondack North Country is sort of balanced at the edge of different worlds.
“We are on the edge of many things, of biomes. We are also on the edge of suitable habitat for ticks, right on the edge.”
But now, Sporn says we’re sort of tipping over from one world into another. “As climate change occurs, ticks are not only moving northward into the Adirondacks. They’re also moving upwards into the higher elevations.”
Essex and St. Lawrence Counties have already seen major spikes in Lyme disease and Sporn says a half-dozen other tick-borne diseases have also been found in the North Country. It’s also likely that dangerous mosquito-borne ailments will move into our region.
So, this changing interaction of water and temperature isn’t just an abstraction. Climate isn’t only a thing that affects polar bears or arctic ice or the debates we see on cable news.
It’s already reshaping our world, changing our seasons, changing the diseases that shape our lives.