By the numbers: Climate change in the county

The first in a series on climate change in the county.

GHENT—Daily we read about tropical coral reefs bleached to extinction, out-of-control wildfires in the West and island nations nearly swamped out of existence by rising seas. But what are the effects of climate change here in Columbia County? Much like the gentle rolling hills of our landscape, the signs are more subtle, but climate change is unmistakably here as well.

The 2018 Natural Resources Inventory prepared by Hudsonia Ltd., summarized the threats to Columbia County from climate change by saying: “in general, springs arrive sooner, summers are hotter, fall frosts begin later, spring frosts end earlier, winters are warmer, and depth and duration of snow cover are reduced from those of past decades.” The numbers bear this out.

The National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), looking back to 1900, reports that the annual average temperature in the county increased by 2.5 degrees F over the past 120 years. The pace of increase is accelerating. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), in the most recent 50 years (between 1970 and 2019) the Hudson Valley has seen its annual temperature rise by nearly 2 degrees F (slightly more than the national average), and average winter temperatures have risen by almost 5 degrees F (also outpacing the national average).

The Hudson Valley Climate Change Primer issued by Partners for Climate Action Hudson Valley projects an additional 3-4 degrees increase in the county in this decade alone. NCEI data also shows that the average temperature in Columbia County in August of 2022 was 5 degrees F warmer than average of all Augusts since 1985.

Moreover, according to the state Department of Health, in its Heat and Health Profile Report for Columbia County, we have experienced anomalous summer temperatures—the number of temperature days above the 30-year norm—every year but two since 1999.

‘[S]prings arrive sooner, summers are hotter, fall frosts begin later, spring frosts end earlier, winters are warmer….’

2018 Natural Resources Inventory

Hudsonia Ltd.

Precipitation numbers and character have also changed. In the Hudson Valley, annual precipitation averaged 48 inches from 1971 to 2000, and is expected to average 49.5 inches this decade, according to a Pattern for Progress Climate Change Brief. Given the warming of winters, more precipitation is falling as rain than snow. As a result, the county sees fewer days with snow cover, reductions in snow depth, earlier snow melt and less lake ice.

Moreover, as the county experienced this summer, the weather is more volatile and more extreme storms occur. Throughout the northeastern U.S. there was a 70% increase in heavy precipitation just between 1958 and 2010, according to the DEC.

The rangers at the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site have been monitoring climate changes at that site. They found that the average number of days with precipitation exceeding 1 inch doubled from 1950 to 2020. In turn, runoff, streamflow and flooding have increased as well.

The climate changes have altered the winter-spring transition, as well, with spring occurring earlier and, often, with false spring occurring and then succeeded by more cold weather.

The temperature in the Hudson River has also changed. The water temperature at Poughkeepsie has risen    by    about 1.5 degrees Celsius in the past 40 years. (One degree Celsius is about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit; to convert a Celsius temperature to Fahrenheit, multiply it by 1.8 and add 32 degrees.)

What does this blizzard of numbers mean? In part it’s shorthand for how rapidly our planet is changing. Future stories will explain how these changes are affecting life in the county and what people in Columbia County and this region are doing to respond to climate change. Watch for more climate change coverage here.

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