Local and national experts weigh in on "the defining issue of our time"

Will upstate New York feel like Virginia or Georgia in 50 years? It depends on us. Even under the best-case scenario, if we lower emissions that fuel climate change, upstate will be compare to present-day Virginia. In another scenario, caused by higher emissions, upstate will feel like Georgia.

The example of our changing landscape was one of several presented last Sunday at Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion State Historic Park by two local experts in science and the environment. What kind of world will our grandchildren inherit?

“It makes me worried,” said Bruce Gilman, Finger Lakes Community College professor emeritus of environmental conservation and horticulture. Gilman presented findings with Ram Shrivastava, environmental engineer and president and CEO of Rochester area Larsen Engineers. Their message, echoed by scientists worldwide including those at Cornell University, was clear: It depends on how we act now — though there’s no turning back the clock on what we’re already experiencing.

Climate change is “irrefutable,” said Gilman, whose more than 40 years of research involves focus on the Finger Lakes.

“There is only one planet,” said Shrivastava. With so much at stake — “I am concerned for my grandson,” he said.

Planet heating up

The U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization science report released in September showed that in the last several years, warming, sea level rise and carbon pollution have all accelerated.

There is a sense of urgency, said United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, because “climate change is the defining issue of our time.”

“For the first time, there is a serious conflict between people and nature, between people and the planet,” Guterres said.

“This new WMO report highlights the importance of making more progress on reducing emissions of carbon dioxide,” said Cornell University climate scientist Natalie Mahowald.

Around the world, this August was a month of historically high temperatures. National climate officials anticipate more of the same through the rest of 2019.

It will be yet another year for the record books, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials said in a news conference in September.

“It is virtually certain that 2019 will end up among the five warmest years on record,” said Ahira Sánchez-Lugo, a climatologist with NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. For the first eight months of the year, the difference between the global land and ocean average temperature and the 20th century average was the third highest on record, behind 2016 and 2017.

In the United States, it was the second warmest summer on record in Alaska, 4.1 degrees above average, NOAA said. Across the lower 48 states it was the 13th warmest August on record, tied with 1955. But Arizona, New Mexico and Texas all had their second warmest August on record.

In New York, the average August temperature hit 66.9 degrees, which was 0.6 degrees above average, NOAA data shows. The average temperature for the summer reached 67 degrees, which was 1.1 degrees above average, according to NOAA data.

What does this all mean?

Gilman highlighted a consequence of climate change — increased very heavy rain events — showing a map tracking percent increases in these rain events from 1958 through 2012. A swath of the upper Northeast that includes the state of New York stands out. It shows New York in the section of the U.S. experiencing the highest percent increase nationwide of 71 percent. While climate change sparks wildfires out west, it’s these rain events we see in our region, said Gilman. He mentioned flooding in areas of the region from Hurricane Irene in 2011, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and other storm events such as the one in 2018 that flooded Lodi, in Seneca County.

“It shows how vulnerable we are,” he said.

In New York state, some 50.3 inches of precipitation fell during the past year ending in August. That’s 10 inches above average, NOAA data shows.

Also last month, NOAA addressed the growing concern about a vast area of the northeastern Pacific Ocean experiencing much warmer than normal temperatures. Worldwide, “oceans are substantially warmer than they have been in the past,” said Greg Johnson, a NOAA oceanographer. “They’re absorbing a massive amount of heat.”

Gilman said hotter temperatures are affecting growing seasons and causing rising sea levels and melting glacial ice, along with changes in precipitation. He talked about extreme storm events, wetter spring seasons, greater risk of summer droughts and warmer winters.

Climate change impacts insect outbreaks and activity by disease-carrying insects such as mosquitoes and ticks, which carry Lyme disease. Warmer climate means increased risk of heat-related illnesses and longer and more potent allergy seasons. For example, the allergy season for ragweed could extend from three weeks to two months, Gilman said.

The increase in harmful algae blooms is another sign. Blue-green algae thrives in warmer surface water temperatures. Gilman has tracked average surface water temperature of Canandaigua Lake since 1996. The data shows a steady warming of the lake that until a few years ago had never experienced a bloom. Now it appears harmful algae blooms may be the norm for Canandaigua Lake.

What can we do?

“We’ve got to change the way we do things,” said Shrivastava. He detailed projects taking place in the Rochester/Finger Lakes region that work with, instead of against, the natural environment — sustainable energy solutions such as solar and geothermal.

“Most people are concerned with costs,” he said. People in New York state can take advantage of special programs, rebates and tax credits that make solar, geothermal and other sustainable options affordable, he said. In some cases, people can actually save money by making these choices. One example is community solar, which are programs that allow consumers to tap into solar power without having to install their own individual solar systems.

Shrivastava said the Finger Lakes is ideal for solar — not because of sunshine, but due to rain. “You just need light,” said Shrivastava. Because the region gets plenty of rain, that naturally washes solar panels. Like computers, solar panels are also more efficient in a cooler environment, which also fits the region compared with other areas of the country, he said.

The engineer also talked about projects to recycle rainwater, turn food waste into compost instead of sending it to landfills, and the benefits of hemp — a crop that can be grown to make rope, strong fabrics, fiberboard, and paper.

Includes reporting by GateHouse Media and Associated Press