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Tracking change in the five climate zones of Western New York

Take a drive from the shores of Lake Ontario to Ellicottville and you'll travel through four climate zones.

Add a side trip to Lake Erie, and you're in a fifth zone.

Researchers at SUNY Buffalo State looked at elevations and climate data to draw boundaries for these climate zones, and each zone has its own story.

“This is our first attempt to weave a story out of it,” said Stephen J. Vermette, a Buffalo State climatologist and professor of geography and planning who led the study. “Different regions are responding differently to climate change.”

The Ontario Coastal zone does not usually have extreme weather and offers ideal conditions for apple, cherry and peach orchards.

The Urban zone's pavement and population density create a "heat island" in Buffalo and its first ring suburbs.

The Erie Coastal zone offers a warmer autumn and winter and a cooler spring and summer.

The Southern Tier zone, the coldest and snowiest of them all, is more prone to extremes in lake-effect snow, thunderstorms and tornadoes.

The Niagara Frontier – from Wheatfield to Batavia – has a longer growing season than it used to.


Researchers examined a half-century's worth of climate data and found changes in each zone and the region.

Researchers found:

• Temperatures average more than 2 degrees warmer across the region now compared to the 1960s.
• Buffalo’s growing season is about two weeks longer than it was 50 years ago.
• Southern Tier locations like Jamestown, Allegany State Park and Franklinville apparently get more snow.
• Lake Erie’s water temperatures are higher and there's less ice cover.

Researchers are still trying to figure out and explain what the changes mean for the future of the region.

For Western New York, climate change might not be entirely bad, at least for now.

“Not everything is gloom-and-doom here,” Vermette said. “Based on the results, there may be opportunities for Western New York.”

Niagara Frontier 

February is for golfing. Mark Mersereau, right, and Dominic Tomasello of Clarence play 18 holes at Buffalo Tournament Club Golf Course on Genesee Sreet in Lancaster on a 59-degree day on Feb. 21. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Golf instructor Scott Marble has watched the storms roll in from the west toward the Buffalo Tournament Club on Genesee Street in Lancaster.

Then, they seem to split off to the north and to the south.

“It’s a weird thing,” Marble said. “They’ll forecast rain, and we won’t get any here.”

What Marble has seen  is one of the many small microclimates found within the Niagara Frontier climate zone – a transition area between the relatively arid Ontario Coastal zone below the Niagara escarpment and the precipitation-laden Southern Tier zone above the Onondaga escarpment.

The data shows no significant trends for increased precipitation – in rain or snowfall – at the four Niagara Frontier sites that have data dating back 50 years, but all of them showed statistically significant trends for increased temperature.

That has helped extend the growing season by two weeks.

Compared to 1965, the growing season starts a week earlier in the spring – on April 21 – and lasts a week later in the fall – until Oct. 24.

“It is definitely happening,” said Chris Zeisz, manager at Russell’s Tree and Shrub Farm in East Amherst. “To attribute that to climate change? I don’t know.”

Zeisz said the changes haven’t yet caused the U.S. Department of Agriculture to adjust any local zones for plant hardiness.

Planters dabble now with planting some new less hardy species like the Blue Atlas Cedar tree, for instance.

“Some people have planted them with success,” he said. “We try it sometimes, but we really don’t recommend it yet.”

Southern Tier

The breathtaking view of Ellicottville during the fall. Taken in 2014. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News file photo)

Defined by its 1,000 feet or higher elevation, the Southern Tier is the most expansive climate zone in Western New York.

Besides Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties, it also includes places like Orchard Park, Elma, East Aurora and almost all of Wyoming County.

Data shows it’s the coldest zone in the region and the one that’s most prone to extremes in lake-effect snow, thunderstorms and tornadoes.

Most of the region’s population isn’t affected by the wild swings, but ski resorts, maple sugar shacks and Christmas tree farms are among businesses that are affected.

“We don’t have winter anymore,” said Ken Brown, owner of Field of Dreams Christmas Tree Farm in South Wales. “They get warm, they get cold, then warm and cold and warm again.”

That has allowed Brown to grow and market some less-hardy, specialized species like Turkish fir, Nordmann fir and Meyer’s Spruce.

But the extremes and fluctuations in the climate make it a tenuous endeavor.

“I have to be careful with what I plant,” Brown said.

For all five sites for which 50 years of data is available – Warsaw, Franklinville, Jamestown, Little Valley and Allegany State Park – there's an indication of statistically significant increases in annual snowfall since the 1960s.

"While snowfall does not appear to be changing across Western New York, there is an indication that snowfall may be increasing in the Southern Tier," Vermette said. "We are working to better understand if that trend is real."

The data shows no dramatic trends for more lake-effect snowfalls over the last 50 years.

That could mean when lake-effect snowstorms happen, they are stronger and more intense.

It sounds like pretty good news for places like Ellicottville’s Holiday Valley, right?

There’s a catch.

The trend toward warmer temperatures means more variability into the winter season.

Weather is becoming more erratic, more extreme. Snow comes and goes more quickly.

Adapting to changing weather has always been part of day-to-day business at ski resorts, but long-term adjustments make good business sense.

Holiday Valley is constantly upgrading its ability to make snow on its own. It added 70 new automated snow guns to its slopes this year, according to Jane Eshbaugh, the resort’s marketing director.

The resort has many other new warm-weather activities too: a climbing forest, hiking, chair lift rides and a mountain coaster.

“Adding year-round activities is mainly because it is just good business sense to make better use of the resort and lodging, but also as insurance against the possibility of shorter winters,” Eshbaugh said.

Erie Coastal 

Mike Jordan of 21 Brix winery and Old Chautauqua Farms in the Town of Portland stands near a bare wire that would normally be heavy with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The previous winter's cold hurt his less hardy grape crops. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Those in Chautauqua County’s grape industry have seen a lot of changes since Elijay Fay planted the first vineyard in 1818 along Lake Erie’s shores in Portland.

That includes the climate.

Over the last half century, Fredonia has experienced statistically significant increases in temperature across its seasons, according to Vermette’s analysis.

Lake Erie’s water temperature has been warming by a half-degree per decade over that time. Lake Erie’s ice typically melts earlier in the spring.

How does that match up with long-term data from the Cornell Cooperative Extention’s Lake Erie Regional Grape Program?

Blooms erupt on vines a week earlier than they used to in 1965 and fruit ripens 5.5 days earlier.

“The only thing that would change is the climate,” said Terry Bates, director of Cornell’s Lake Erie Research and Extension Laboratory. “It’s definitely a trend.”

Data from the Cornell Lake Erie Research and Extension Laboratory in Portland shows vines break buds, bloom and produce fruit for harvest earlier now than decades ago. (Lake Erie Regional Grape Program)

That doesn't mean the days are getting hotter, but daily low temperatures showed dramatic increases.

Average minimum temperatures in Fredonia increased between 3.5 and 4 degrees between 1965 and 2016 across all seasons.

“This rise in minimum temperatures, possibly attributed to a warming of Lake Erie’s waters, may further heighten the difference in climate between the Erie Coastal zone as compared to other regions in Western New York," Vermette said.

For Lake Erie’s grape growers, changes like those bring advantages.

Warmer temperatures and less lake ice cover means they can experiment with some more exotic, less hardy and more profitable wine grapes, Bates said.

But there are trade-offs.

Earlier bud breaks are more susceptible to a late-season freeze.

And, just one anomalously cold winter can cause millions of dollars in crop damage. That happened in 2014-15.

“The negative side ... is how erratic the weather has become,” Bates said. “We try to avoid extremes.”

Ontario Coastal 

Lake Ontario levels were high in May, as shown here at the pier in Wilson in Niagara County. (John Hickey/Buffalo News file photo)

Heavy precipitation and higher Lake Ontario water levels meant devastating flooding in shoreline communities earlier this year.

What does the future hold?

“We’ve looked at this very carefully, and the answer is: ‘Nobody knows,’ ” said Bill Werick of the International Joint Commissioner’s Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee.

The Ontario Coastal zone is the region’s climate chameleon. Vermette's analysis found it morphs depending on the season.

Generally, this area below the Niagara escarpment is where the least extreme – and warmest – weather is found during the autumn and winter months.

During the spring, the zone is confined to a mile or two of the shoreline, where it tends to be cooler. It merges with the Niagara Frontier climate during the summer.

It's relative lack of extreme weather is why it provides ideal conditions for apple, cherry and peach orchard growers.

But tell that to shoreline property owners.

Climate changes threaten to bring a new variability – and uneasiness.

“People think now, 'Oh, it’s going to be wetter: more precipitation.' But, pick up any climate change book on the Great Lakes and they say, ‘Definitely, going to be drier.' You know why? Higher temperatures, more evaporation," Werick said. "We’ve looked very carefully, and you know what? Nobody knows. Everybody’s guessing."


Population density, pavement and lack of green space make the urban climate a "heat island." (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Vermette found the region's most populated zone lacks data.

The region's smallest climate area includes Buffalo and its first ring suburbs.

When the official weather station moved from downtown Buffalo to the Buffalo Niagara International Airport in 1943, it limited the amount of climate data from inside city limits over the last 50 years.

That means conclusions about climate trends in the urban zone are sketchy. More study will be required, Vermette said.

Generally, the population density and vast amounts of asphalt and development create an "urban heat island," Vermette said.

That keeps temperatures warmer than other zones every season.

It's also the last spot in Western New York, "to succumb to frost in the autumn," Vermette said.

Next steps

Dr. Stephen Vermette, a SUNY Buffalo State climatologist and geography professor, recently analyzed data on climate trends in Western New York over the last half-century. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Vermette is teaming up with Designing to Live Sustainably, a local environmental group focused on land-use planning.

They parlayed a grant from Buffalo State's Research Foundation this year to identify Western New York's climate zones and analyze local climate trends in one of the nation's first detailed climate studies.

Next, they'll study the data they've collected in more detail with hopes of using it to develop a high-resolution model projecting the region's climate to 2040 or beyond.

Climate researchers did that for the Greater Toronto Area.

That sort of information could position Western New York to market itself as the climate change "oasis," according to Vermette and George Besch, a leader in the Designing to Live Sustainably movement.

Climate-change experts predict future extreme weather will only become more extreme.

But consider this: Western New York is insulated from the hurricanes that have devastated the Gulf Coast and parts of the Southeast. It's insulated from the droughts, forest fires and mudslides that have ravaged areas in the West. And, it's insulated from the tornadoes and floods of the Tennessee Valley and other parts of the nation.

Plus, it's nestled next to the largest freshwater source in the world, the Great Lakes.

“We’re not that bad as a place in the world," Vermette said.

Added Besch: "If we adapt, we're not going to just survive, we're going to thrive."

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