Climate change means more summer rain and flooding in New York

Weather

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Climate change is impacting every part of the world, and some more than others. The Great Lakes and Northeast continue to see increasing impacts from flooding to droughts and warming temperatures. All this due to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. 

It is important to remember the difference between weather and climate. Weather is what we get day-to-day, and climate is what we get over decades. While all weather is impacted by a changing climate, not all weather is a direct cause of a changing climate. One analogy is that weather is like a grade on your homework assignment while climate is your grade for the entire year.

It is getting hotter, says New York State climatologist Mark Wysocki. “It’s one of these sneaky things that I don’t think people realize,” said Wysocki. “When we start talking about climate change and so forth, it’s a gradual background noise that’s coming up in terms of the temperatures.” Wysocki works out of Cornell, one of the top universities working to mitigate impacts from climate change.

Take a look at this chart with average temperatures in Rochester over more than a century:

The National Weather Service adjusts the “climate normals” every 10 years to allow for accurate comparisons. A recent change from 1981-2010 normals to 1991-2020 normals revealed a bump in mean annual temperature from 48.2 degrees to 49.5 degrees. That is a 1.3 degree increase. This might seem small, but many scientists say that only 2 degrees celsius represents a point of no return.

At the very least, it has a big impact on precipitation. “There’s a big shift. Dry in the west, wet in the east. Very wet in the Northeast. In fact, our precipitation has gone up by 75% in the Northeast,” said Wysocki.

Jim Howe is the head of the Finger Lakes chapter of the Nature Conservancy. He’s been watching the flooding closely. “We’re also seeing precipitation coming in these incredible downbursts,” said Howe. “We’re getting a lot more of our rainfall in these big storm events that drop two, three, even more inches of rain in just a few hours.” 

Heavy rain has trouble being absorbed when it falls over urban areas, as it cannot permeate through concrete. The runoff water can flow right into creeks, streams, tributaries, and other waterways, picking up pollution on the way such as fertilizers and chemicals. Algae take advantage of this nutrient boost and can multiply rapidly in hot weather. This can lead to cyanobacteria or toxic algae.

Short-term hot or dry forecasts don’t help with the issue. In today’s climate, Lake George is routinely riddled with algal blooms, and other bodies of water in the state and across the planet are no different.

“We used to have harmful algal blooms in some of the shallower lakes, Honeoye, Conesus, but now they’re occurring in some of the lakes like Skaneateles, and Canandaigua, and Seneca, that’s never happened before,” said Howe. 

These flooding events, like the one that happened in Whitehall in 2020, will likely happen again as the climate continues to warm. It is important for us to protect against future flooding to mitigate damage. “Protect our green infrastructure. That’s the forests and the wetlands and the floodplains that are capable of absorbing this water and releasing it more slowly back into the environment,” said Howe.

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