In press conferences over the past few months, Gov. Kathy Hochul has used the word “unprecedented” to describe weather phenomena such as heavy snowfalls in Buffalo, unhealthy air quality from wildfires in Canada and, most recently, flash floods.
“These are unprecedented weather phenomena that hit us again and again,” the governor said at a July 10 briefing on the Hudson Valley flooding.
Are they really “unprecedented” and is this our new normal?
Andrew Vander Yacht, head of SUNY-ESF’s Applied Forestry and Ecology Laboratory, said all the signs and records point to these unprecedented events and that climate change is real. He said most climate variables can be plotted as normal curves, with many observations around the mean and few on its extreme ends.
“Many people think of climate change as a change in where the average peaks are,” Vander Yot said. “If people are worried about a 1.6 degree Celsius rise around the world since pre-industrial times, that’s not so scary, is it? It’s just that the distribution has changed.”
But Vander Yott said what’s happening with climate change is more than just a change in averages, the overall curve is almost flattening. This makes the distribution less normal, more scatter around the mean, and more frequent extremes.
“There are events happening now, new events, events that have never happened before, events outside the normal distribution in the historical record of climate,” said Vander Yot.
Vander Yacht said what’s disturbing about the wildfire trends in northeastern Canada is that the biodiversity on the east coast is different from the biodiversity on the west coast. Because of this, our forest composition tends to favor species that are fire-sensitive and less tolerant of disturbance, he said.
“These trends will clash with the projected increase in fires in the future,” Vander Yot said. “Fire-sensitive forests are clashing with increased wildfire activity in the future, which will cause ecological disasters and severe degradation of forest systems.”
These unprecedented events represent a kind of whiplash for forest ecosystems. Vander Yott said variability can make it difficult for a species to actually find its niche.
Tree species like sugar maple and oak trees are two sides of the coin, he said, and he expects oak to dominate in the region, as drought conditions and frequency likely won’t favor sugar maple growth.
Vander Yott explains that while forest management promises to make forests more resilient, the key problem is that the rate of change is outpacing people’s ability to adapt to those changes.
“Forests are having a really hard time coping with the extreme variability that we’re bringing to the climate,” said Vander Yot. “The amount of energy we are putting into our atmosphere and oceans, and all subsequent impacts on climate change, are making it very difficult for our tree species and wildlife to sustain.”