Monday, January 2, 2012

Will Climate Change Mean More Wind?

Global warming has been the topic of numerous articles, lectures and books over the past decade, and while some of these works focus on its causes and on possible ways to slow this impending climate shift, others discuss the consequences of an altered weather pattern on the environment. While I have only limited insight into this extraordinarily complex phenomenon, I do have some opinions with regards to the potential impact that a more thermally energized atmosphere would have on the Adirondacks.
Much of what has been written about global warming concerns the issue of elevated temperatures and the change in the length and severity of the seasons. However, along with an atmosphere that contains more heat, there tends to be an atmosphere that also has more wind energy. Researchers have documented changes that have occurred over the past several decades in world temperatures, yet there is very little data available on how average wind speed and peak wind gusts have changed during this same period of time. (Everyone has a thermometer outside their house, yet very few individuals have an anemometer. I have two different types of thermometers, and regularly check them, yet Santa has not yet brought me a wind speed indicator for Christmas.)

Strong, gusty winds can make for a challenging time canoeing on an open lake, or riding a mountain bike on a trail across a flat meadow or through a valley aligned with the direction of the wind. Periods of frequent and intense winds can also interfere with the lives of numerous forms of wildlife, as well as with the growth and development of some species of plants.

Repeated exposure to gale force winds, especially during the winter can lead to desiccation in trees and shrubs as fast as exposure to dry, arctic air. Despite a general warming trend, hillsides buffeted by the strengthening prevailing winds of winter may remain in their current vegetative state, yet those slopes and lowlands sheltered from these gales may gradually develop more temperate forms of vegetation. This could possibly lead to our landscape of gently rounded hillsides being covered with vastly different plant communities, more reminiscent of places with much steeper terrain. Should sharp contrasts develop in the flora, there is always the possibility of isolating those forms of wildlife, like the varying hare, that are hesitant to enter an area dominated by temperate vegetation.

Many forms of wildlife also experience adverse affects from repeated bouts of high wind. The chill factor that is regularly announced during radio and TV weather broadcast impacts all creatures, not just humans. For example, in their attempt to avoid the added discomfort associated with wind in winter, deer are known to retreat into low-lying conifer thickets until the breezy conditions subside. Since these evergreen forests contain only limited supplies of browse for them, deer tend to experience problems with malnutrition while confined to stands of softwoods for any length of time. Unquestionably, a warmer Adirondack Park would benefit the deer population, but a windier one may not.

Even during other times of the year, high winds can impact the behavior of the white-tail. Hunters may note that deer tend to be less active when the branches overhead are banging into one another, and when smells traveling through the woods are only coming from one direction.

High winds can impact those many species of birds that nest in the canopy of our forests. Strong gales are known to rip small, delicate nests from their tree top supports, as well as knock out nestlings that have recently hatched.

Wind can also be responsible for deterring numerous nectar-eating bugs from making as many visits to plants as they need, and it can hinder the ability of those insects that attract a mate while well up in the air from finding a breeding partner. It also plays a significant role in disturbing the stratified layers of water in a summer lake, and creating the surface turbulence that discourages the osprey and eagle from feeding normally during the warmer months of the year.

I have absolutely no scientific data to support my position that our environment is getting windier as the climate changes other than my own personal observations. Additionally, I have very little information concerning the impact that wind has on our flora and fauna, however, I know that wind does affect many creatures and I believe that wind is one factor that will reshape nature here in the Adirondacks.

(Next week I will focus on how climate change can put more water into the system.)

Photo: The 1995 Blowdown in the Adirondacks by Liza Graham, Courtesy Wildlife Conservation Society.

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Tom Kalinowski

Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

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