The Adirondack Park is already experiencing the impacts of climate change. Lakes and ponds are covered with ice for fewer days than they were a century ago; spring is starting earlier in the lower elevations; and storms are becoming more intense and frequent.
Scientists predict that in the future the Park will be a much different place. Wildlife species that can’t adapt to the warmer weather are expected to move northward or to higher elevations. Buildings that remain in floodplains are expected to be more vulnerable to flooding. Plant communities, especially those on high summits and boreal lowlands, could change significantly or even disappear.
Caused largely by burning fossil fuels, global climate change is so pervasive and complex that many people may feel there’s little that can be done on a local or regional level. In the Adirondacks, however, a number of initiatives have been launched to address the problem, either by mitigating climate change or by adapting to it. Among them:
■ The state has been replacing bridges along Route 73 in Keene with ones that can better withstand flooding.
■ State agencies are filling their fleets with hybrid vehicles that emit less of the pollution that contributes to climate change. The Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism in Lake Placid also uses hybrids.
■ The state-owned ski areas at Gore Mountain and Whiteface Mountain plan to switch to solar energy to run chairlifts and snowmaking machines. The mountains already use high-tech snow guns that turn off and on in response to fluctuating temperatures.
■ Chestertown in the southeastern Adirondacks relies on solar panels to power its town buildings.
■ The town of North Elba, which includes Lake Placid, plans to turn food scraps into biogas that can be burned for energy.
“All in all, the Adirondacks is reasonably well positioned on climate change,” said Jim Herman, a Keene resident who with Dave Mason has hosted climate workshops in the region. “We’re in a state that is aggressive on clean-energy policy, and we already get most of our energy in the region from clean sources. … We don’t have any coal-fired power plants to rail against here in the Adirondacks.”
Power generation in the North Country Regional Economic Development region, which extends all the way up to the Canadian border, is dominated by hydro dams and wind farms in the St. Lawrence Valley, according to Mason and Herman. “The region only consumes about one-third of the power it produces,” according to their report on climate change. The St. Lawrence River hydroelectric dams include Robert Moses-Robert H. Saunders Power Dam, which generates enough power to light Albany, Syracuse, and Buffalo. Sources of hydroelectric power in the Adirondack Park include a series of dams on the Raquette River downstream from Tupper Lake.
Other sources of clean energy in the North Country include wind and solar power. Wood has a small carbon footprint if harvested locally, especially if burned as wood pellets. Although there are no wind farms in the Park, they can be found to the north in the St. Lawrence Valley and to the west on the Tug Hill Plateau.
The Ausable Valley School District is leading the way in wood heating, after installing two new biomass boiler plants to heat their schools several years ago. Wood-pellet plants in the North Country include Curran Renewables in Massena and Essex Pallet and Pellet in Keeseville. In addition, the New Hampshire-based Northern Forest Center developed an Adirondack program in 2015 that offered financial assistance to homeowners and municipalities for installing wood-pellet boilers in the northern part of the Park.
The Adirondack North Country Association, in partnership with the town of Franklin, has been promoting the use of solar energy in recent years through its “Solarize Tri-Lakes” campaign. The program offers free evaluations to homeowners and leads them through the process of getting state and federal incentives. In 2015, more than fifty homeowners installed solar polar as a result of this program. As for as governments using solar power, Chestertown took the lead in this field when it switched its buildings to solar power several years ago.
But observers say the Park could do more. For example, only a handful of local governments participate in a climate-smart program sponsored by the state Department of Environmental Conservation that aims to help communities assess the risks of climate change and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. No local governments from Franklin, Herkimer, and Fulton counties take part. Only three towns in Essex County are enrolled, and only Lake George and Glens Falls are enrolled in Warren County.
Mason and Herman said the Park also could improve its mass-transit system, especially given the long distances between communities. The current system, they said, is underused and often under the radar. He said there needs to be more information about the public transportation made available to the public.
“Show me a map of all bus service into and out of the Park and around the Park internally,” Mason said. “Everyone has their story about what’s crummy about the existing bus service in the Adirondacks, but no one can really tell you what it looks like. There needs to be some work done—some research-type work done on what exactly is in place to get people in and out of the Park and move people around in the Park.”
Some people have suggested that trains could be used to transport people in the Park, but Mason and Herman said new technology in development will lead to buses and other vehicles that emit less carbon. They also hope more drivers will turn to electric cars in the future, but they acknowledged that a widespread switch isn’t practical at the moment.
Saranac Lake resident Sunita Halasz, who drives an electric car, said there is a dearth of charging stations in the Adirondacks. In ideal conditions (warm weather and flat terrain), her car can go about seventy-five miles before it needs recharging. The lack of charging stations means the car may run out of power on long trips in the Park. She suggests that businesses could benefit from installing charging stations.
“When you look at a map of charging stations in Quebec on Plugshare.com, they are everywhere,” Halasz said. “The [Adirondack] map is dark with charging-station sites. A lot of Canadians come into New York and use Price Chopper charging stations as they head down the Northway. If other businesses installed charging stations, which is easy to do, they would attract a lot of Canadian customers.”
The Plugshare maps, which lists charging stations, shows none in the central Adirondacks, only two in the Old Forge area, one in Saranac Lake, none in Lake Placid, and two in Tupper Lake. There are a handful of others scattered around the Park. What’s more, not all of the stations on Plugshare are open to the public. But Halasz said there is hope for electric cars: newer versions can go more than two hundred miles on a battery, which would make them more practical.
Gail Brill, who heads the Adirondack Green Circle, would like to see the Park’s residents get more of their food from local sources. “Much of the food that is trucked into our area supermarkets comes from farms across the country and South America. The industrial food system is an efficient, carbon- producing behemoth that sucks the soil of nutrients, abuses animals, and pollutes the land,” Brill said. “Deciding to source your food from local farms is a moral one. But local food is better tasting, better for you, and considerably better for the environment. Yes, it’s more expensive, but local farms don’t get big government subsidies. The cost reflects the real price of real food that is good for you and good for the environment.”
The Park seems to be going in that direction. Farming in the Champlain Valley, among other places, has rebounded in recent years. Community gardens continue to pop up around the Park. Even local breweries are on the rise: they can be found in Keeseville, Tupper Lake, Schroon Lake, Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, and Lake George.
Brill praised North Elba for its plans to construct an anaerobic digester this summer that will turn food scraps into biogas (mostly methane) that will be burned to produce energy and reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that would be emitted during the normal breakdown of these organic substances. The idea came from Lake Placid science teacher Tammy Morgan and her students. Morgan estimated that local residences and businesses throw out an estimated nine hundred tons of food waste annually. If put into a digester, the food scraps could generate enough electricity for almost thirty homes. A byproduct of the process is liquid fertilizer, which can be applied on town athletic fields.
The North Elba project underscores another important element in the fight against climate change: educating and recruiting the next generation.
“Climate change will really never get solved by the boomer generation,” Herman said. “We are just too low energy. It’s the millennials that are really going to take this on, and they’re going to solve it with their own ways and their own style, their own technologies with their own approaches to collaboration.”
The Adirondack Park seems to be doing a good job preparing youth for the challenge ahead. Paul Smith’s College educates both its students and the public about climate change. This spring, the college and Wild Center hosted a forum titled “Climate as a Moral Issue” that featured Catholic ambassadors. The ambassadors, who traveled from as far away as California, were selected and trained by the Catholic Climate Covenant, a U.S. Catholic organization devoted to solving climate change.
“Addressing climate change is a moral issue as well as a scientific one,” said Curt Stager, professor of natural sciences at Paul Smith’s who helped organize the event. “And the world faith community is taking it on as one of the great challenges of our time. Our goal with this summit is to help the ambassadors communicate the scientific and ethical aspects of this issue as widely and effectively as possible.”
The Wild Center has done its part by sponsoring an annual Youth Climate Summit. Apart from the summit, students have participated in a wide range of events, including attending the United Nations Climate Change Conference in France last year. This past winter, Youth Climate Summit participants held “I Am Pro Snow” rallies at Mount Van Hoevenberg and Whiteface Mountain, among other places, to raise awareness of climate change.
“One of the most exciting things to come out of the North Country is the Youth Climate Summit movement that started at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake and is now spreading worldwide,” Stager said. ”Climate change is the great challenge of today’s youth, and there are many ways we can help to support them in their efforts to make the world a better place.”
Stager, who has written a book on climate change, said a well-educated public is essential to push policy-makers to reduce the carbon footprint of humans not just in the Park, but around the globe.
“There are many ways to reduce our carbon footprints, from using fuel-efficient cars to insulating homes and so on,” Stager said. “But one of the biggest things we can do is to support state and national-scale policies that encourage alternative sources of energy. Part of that effort includes learning enough of the basic science to be able to argue persuasively against climate denial, and also learning to see it as a moral issue as well as a scientific one.
“Each of us has different things that we are willing to do with less of or do without, but very few of us are truly willing to go back to living in the stone age for the sake of global climate. The realistic path is forward, finding more sustainable and ethical ways of powering civilization that also allow people who now struggle in poverty to have a reasonable standard of living without turning the planet into a parking lot.”
Photos from above: Adirondack Youth Climate Summit students hold an ”I Am Pro Snow” rally at Mount Van Hoevenberg in January; The Rainbow Falls hydroelectric facility is located on the Ausable River in Keeseville; The Halasz family’s electric car is hooked up to a charger at their home in Saranac Lake and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Madeline Little surveys the water on Roaring Brook in Lake Placid near a bridge built to withstand flooding and facilitate fish passage by Mike Lynch
This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here