January 6, 2013

Adapting to extreme weather

Towns, villages plan for changing weather patterns


---- — RAY BROOK — Heated debate about changing climatic patterns seems to have cooled.

Vigorous — if not antipathetic — discourse has been tempered by severe-weather events that left scars and economic dents on community and commercial landscapes.

If not here, then where will the next catastrophe hit?

Following Irene and Lee in 2011, 2012 might have pushed public awareness over the brink with a super-storm named Sandy. It was a weather anomaly that flummoxed meteorologists.

The turbulent wind, rain and snow bent the weather models and changed averages.

For decades, climate science has continued to try to predict what lies ahead. Progressively dire reports have not affected public policy in any real, meaningful way, given the intense skepticism.

But science is finding more changing weather patterns than less. And some here are forming an adaptation plan.


In November, a group of U.S. scientists published another prediction model in Environmental Research Letters with high-resolution maps based on current geographical and weather data.

According to the article, their conclusions found a “total annual extreme precipitation in both the Northeast and Southeast have a mean increase of 35 percent or more, suggesting a greater risk of flooding in future climate conditions. 

“Considering both heat waves and extreme precipitation, the Northeast region shows the largest increases. Thus, it is important that the Northeast take actions to mitigate the impact from climate change in the next several decades.”

The updated models also show sea levels are rising 60 percent faster than predicted five years ago by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The most recent projections don’t go out a century, either.

Statistics suggests an average temperature rise in the Northeast — throughout the Adirondacks, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine — of some 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the next 30 to 50 years.

Climate-change response plans left unfinished five years ago seem ineffectual somehow.

Property values long-prized for “waterfront” location are beginning to look more like potential disaster areas, and scientists here are working to process the fast-changing data to help protect people and property.


The Adirondack Park Agency has kept climate science in the forefront of their ongoing land-use planning.

At a recent meeting, commissioners heard from several key people who are helping develop an Adirondack Climate and Energy Action Plan.

The goal is to both reduce carbon emissions and to establish an adaptation plan.

Earlier in 2012, the Wild Center in Tupper Lake hosted a climate-change response gathering for municipal leaders.

“Why did the Wild Center do this? Because climate change is the most important scientific issue of our time,” said Stephanie Radcliffe, the museum’s executive director.

“It’s our obligation to figure out how best to understand what’s happening and then put that understanding to everyday use.”

The Wild Center has consistently fostered awareness of environmentally sustainable solutions for conservation and economic growth. The museum’s documentary “A Matter of Degrees” is shared with a teacher’s guide to classrooms throughout the state.

The fourth-annual Youth Climate Summit held in November brought students from 28 schools, representing a population of 25,000 Adirondack kids, Radcliffe said.

She is also one of several regional leaders working to finish ClimAID, a statewide climate-adaptation project launched by New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. 

Dr. Curt Stager, a climate scientist at Paul Smith’s College, is also helping draft the strategic-action plan, along with Corrie Miller, executive director of the Ausable River Association.

Both Stager and Miller shared science updates with APA’s board in November.


Stager said the science “is really coming home to roost now.”

Beyond prediction, historic data shows an annual warming trend over 30 years by 2 degrees Fahrenheit in summer and slightly more in autumn. And the average water level of Lake Champlain has risen by about 1 foot since 1970. 

Always a key indicator, ice on the lakes tells the longer-term history.

“Lake Champlain rarely freezes completely in the winter now,” Stager said.

And the ice record goes back 200 years.

“When Thomas Jefferson was here, it used to freeze in November.”

The trend toward extreme-weather events is the result of an atmospheric shift, Stager explained.

“A warmer climate makes the atmosphere more turbulent. Expect warmer weather and plan accordingly,” Stager said.

“Expect more extreme events. How can we use this information rather than get depressed? We add up the gains and add up the losses (and ask): ‘What does a warmer world mean to us here?’ Heating bills go down, there is less cost for road maintenance. But it is kind of hard to run a bobsled without snow.”


APA Chairwoman LeiLani Ulrich asked if there is anything emerging from science for best planning-management practices to accommodate for extreme weather.

The engineering basis has to be recalibrated, Stager said.

In an extreme event, it is important to pay attention to locations where damage occurs and to map out areas flooded.

Flood maps were redrawn when Lake Champlain topped 103 feet in the spring of 2011.

And those maps provide a smaller, local version of future sea-level rise, Stager explained.

One of the benchmarks for rural safety looks to protect hamlets, settled for centuries along riverbanks, as the hub of the most roads and intersections.


Miller said the Ausable River Association’s research tallied 200 of the major culverts and bridges along the river and its East- and West-branch tributaries. The survey was done before and after Tropical Storm Irene.

Climate adaptation here, she said, would look to redesign bridges, roads, water barriers and culverts, building them higher and/or larger.

Flooded culverts wreak havoc in many ways, Miller said.

“We anticipate more frequent flooding, so it makes sense to think about culverts.”

Fully $1.4 million in damage happened during Irene in the towns of Keene and Jay just because of ruined, dislodged or clogged culverts. The small pipes running under roads are easily blocked by debris and can be dislodged and tossed like straws downriver.

Climate-change adaptation strategy here would incorporate cement-box culverts, for instance.

“The bigger culverts cost more money up front but have significantly lowered maintenance costs and they last longer,” Miller explained to APA commissioners.


The River Association survey found 70 percent of local roads are managed by towns and counties, not by the state or federal governments.

“So we asked the towns: ‘Where are your priorities? Do you know you’re going to put a cone in anticipating a flood?’”

To help pinpoint trouble areas, the River Association’s culvert maps were overlaid with the environmentally sensitive fish-passage maps to isolate the most critical areas.

Looking to lessons learned from the past year, Miller said, “Until tropical storm Irene, we didn’t think about sediment and debris. Before Irene, we were interested in thinking about fish passage.”

Their environmental science is being melded with a public-safety initiative, looking to find funding sources in a coordinated, science-based effort. 

Miller said it’s about finding the sweet spot “where a lot of different interests can come together that makes us resilient in terms of climate change.”

It would be a mistake to ignore the pattern of what’s going wrong in extreme weather, Stager said.

Towns, schools and counties planning future budgets might be well-met to anticipate weather damage, he suggested.

“A lot of our people and our infrastructure is in highly vulnerable places. The mistake would be pretending the problem is not there. It’s a fact-based reality.”


The towns of Jay and Keene each received $50,000 in community-resilience planning grants to help map out scenarios where public infrastructure conflicts with natural infrastructure of river banks, flood plains and tributaries.

“What could APA do to help support our communities?” Ulrich asked the scientists.

Miller said development might do well to not build at all in the flood plains, which are usually classified as “hamlet” in the town’s center — and where towns are allowed to grow.

“Where does it make sense to have that kind of growth?” Miller asked the APA.

Radcliffe said the Wild Center will host workshops on climate-change adaptation strategy for town highway personnel at Local Government Day in March.

The museum is also planning a climate-science workshop in May for a wider audience.

Email Kim Smith: