Don’t think the climate is changing? Just ask these Americans

A competitor goes down the course during the 2010 Freestyle Skiing World Cup Ski Cross at Whiteface Mountain on January 23, 2010 in Lake Placid, New York.
The Adirondacks are a popular destination for winter sports, but the season is getting shorter thanks to climate change. Getty Images

A Baltimore grade school classmate of mine continues to doubt the science of climate change. He loves to raise the debate over the “hockeystick curve” and all the uncertainties of the science. Any data I provide on rising CO2 levels elicits a polite response accompanied by countervailing data generated by the professional naysayers. Stalemate!

Never mind my school chum’s skepticism, I now find the climate has already changed in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, where quite a few of my Baltimorean classmates and I spent our summers in the 1960s, and where some of us ventured in winter to ski and snowshoe. Back then, winter there was synonymous with cold, abundant snow and winter sports (think Lake Placid and the Winter Olympics).

The Adirondack Mountain region is encompassed in the 6 million-acre Adirondack Park, the largest park in the Lower 48, nearly three times larger than the more-famous Yellowstone. The Adirondack Park is unique because it is a mix of public and private lands, combining the East’s wildest forests with bustling towns that support year-round outdoor recreation as well as logging operations from the extensive private timberlands.

In mid-January of this year, looking for some cold and snow, I took a field trip back to my Adirondack stomping grounds. I spent a day out birding with local naturalist Joan Collins. The birding was fine, but Joan told me an alarming story of the degree to which climate change has already impacted day-to-day life in the Adirondacks — noticeable year-round but especially in winter.

First let’s start with the birds. Southern species that in the 1960s were absent from the Adirondacks are now commonplace — red-bellied woodpecker, tufted titmouse, Northern cardinal, and quite a few others. Conversely, some of the famous boreal breeding birds — American three-toed woodpecker, spruce grouse and Cape May warbler — have all but disappeared, their breeding ranges having withdrawn northward into Canada. It seems the birds are noticing a changing climate.

Scientists believe the greatest changes taking place in the Adirondacks relate to winter. Winter temperatures have warmed 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970. Annual snowfall at Lake Placid has declined by 18 percent since 1948. Moreover, the winter snows have become much more sporadic, interspersed with unseasonable thaws. And there’s more.

The Adirondack Park is famous for its lakes, which traditionally freeze over in autumn and become ice-free in spring. For Adirondack residents, the autumn freeze-up and spring thaw are important seasonal events everyone speaks of, because these are important to day-to-day life. Frozen lakes provide places to ice-fish, cross-country ski, and snow-mobile, and also, when thick enough, give logging trucks over-water access to isolated patches of big timber in roadless areas. Now, autumn freeze-up occurs 10 days later than it did in 1970, and spring thaw occurs 9 days earlier. And more importantly, the waters of the Adirondacks suffer thinning ice and open water during mid-winter warm-spells, a phenomenon that was unknown in the late 20th Century. On my recent January visit, the Hudson River in the central Adirondacks was not iced over.

Changing winter conditions are more than a curiosity to Adirondack communities. Lakes that do not freeze over do not allow for ice-fishing, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling, and do not permit easy access to isolated work sites for industrial enterprises that are working in winter.

Snowmobiling as a winter sport took off in the late 20th century and has been an important winter activity generating substantial income to local communities. Now reduced and uncertain snowpack threatens this economy, impacting snowmobile sales and repairs, but also reducing business at motels and restaurants that depend on the snowmobilers in winter. 

Downhill and cross-country skiing have been harmed in the same manner as the snowmobiling. Whiteface Mountain reported the worst winter on record in 2016, with the missing snow leading to missing skiers.

Timber harvest of private lands in the Adirondack Park remains an important part of the local economy in a number of communities. This is primarily a winter activity. The frozen ground and frozen lakes allow the heavy equipment to get to the timber, scattered in the woods and across the lakes. A warmer winter makes it more difficult to extract the timber.

Warmer winters also invite tree pests such as the hemlock woolly adelgid, emerald ash borer and southern pine beetle to expand their ranges northward into the Adirondacks. And ticks and tick-borne disease are increasing in the Adirondacks, threatening residents with Lyme and other diseases. And in the wetlands and forests, moose populations are threatened by a hyper-infestation of ticks when there is no winter die-back of these blood-sucking ectoparasites.

Whereas the economic impact of a warming winter in the D.C. area is perhaps negligible, in the Adirondack region, which collects so much of its income in winter, the impact is substantial and a point of worried discussion in the local shops. Adirondack businessmen and residents may not notice the changing birdlife or the missing moose, but lost dollars get the notice of every resident. It’s not about politics, it’s about the money.

Bruce M. Beehler is a research associate in the Division of Birds, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is author of twelve books, including the recent Birds of Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia and Natural Encounters—Biking, Hiking, and Birding Through the Seasons. Views expressed in this column are his alone and do not represent those of this institution