Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Will climate change threaten ‘forever wild’?

Lake George in winter. Explorer file photo by Mike Lynch

Covering the Adirondacks beat, you hear two words surface in a lot of conversations: climate refugees.

The idea is simple enough. As temperatures warm and the effects of climate change increase drought and water shortages, threaten deadly summer heat and render some parts of the country (let alone world) unlivable, many people may be looking at the Adirondack Park region with new interest.

Water is abundant. High temperatures will remain bearable for the foreseeable future and access to nature is plentiful. While the term typically applies to people around the world who will be forced to leave their homes, it may also apply to city-dwellers looking to escape the concrete jungle in the heat of summer.

During an online discussion last week, Paul Smith’s climate scientist Curt Stager made an interesting point about the growing pressures the park could face from a surge in interest. It could threaten the park’s robust protections enshrined in state law and constitution.

Stager said he was worried about the “gentrification” of the park that could follow from more people turning to the region for refuge and the temptation to weaken development restrictions aimed at preserving the park’s natural state.

Stager joined me for the online Q and A about a recent paper he and colleagues at Paul Smith’s College published last month, which outlines how warming temperatures have already altered plant and animal behaviors and threatens the human culture and economy built around winter.

The paper concluded that more than any individual species, human culture may face the most existential risk in a warming world. Think about the Adirondacks without ice fishing and winter carnivals, a ski season measured in weeks not months.

It also raises a litany of other important questions about how climate change will shape the park in the coming decades. Stager said over the long term, the Adirondacks may start to look more like the Blue Ridge Mountains of the mid-Atlantic.

Much more research is needed to understand ecological mismatches that may arise as species that rely on one another shift their habits at different speeds. Ground-nesting bees depend on emerging around the same time as pollen on nearby plants; if pollen flushes out earlier and earlier, the bees could lose out on critical pollen-collecting time.

Water quality will also be a key issue. Water temperatures are increasing, disrupting the important thermal dynamics within lakes and reducing oxygen levels in the deeper reaches of the water. Warming temperatures could also influence cyanobacteria and the growth of harmful algal blooms. Plenty to keep track of in the years ahead.


Photo at top: Lake George in winter. Explorer file photo by Mike Lynch

Editor’s note: This first appeared in Zach’s weekly “Water Line” newsletter. Click here to sign up.

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Zachary Matson has been an environmental reporter for the Explorer since October 2021. He is focused on the many issues impacting water and the people, plants and wildlife that rely on it in the Adirondack Park. Zach worked at daily newspapers in Missouri, Arizona and New York for nearly a decade, most recently working as the education reporter for six years at the Daily Gazette in Schenectady.

2 Responses

  1. MaryLou Giuliano says:

    Hopefully the Adirondacks will “get ahead of” the surge of extra people trying to move to, (and develop) the land more quickly than the Catskills have. The wildlife will suffer even more stress if houses and blacktop are more dense that they are now. I hope zoning is in place to severely limit subdivisions. Escape the heat of the city by patronizing a local motel or inn, not by building a new house.

  2. louis curth says:

    Sadly Zach, the climate change that threatens “forever wild” has been worsening for a long, long time despite the heroic efforts of visionary people and organizations who are trying hard to preserve and protect it.

    In his Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold writes; “there are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.” Many Adirondackers that I know will relate to the “cannot” in that observation.

    Leopold continues; “Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher *standard of living* is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free.”

    Aldo Leopold wrote those words in 1948, but for those of us who choose to live and to visit this Adirondack remnant of “forever wild”, our era of relentless climate change make his words even more salient.

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