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Don Paul: How much should WNY worry about climate change?

Don Paul

The pre-Scott Pruitt Environmental Protection Agency undertook an extensive survey over several years to help gauge, county by county, which U.S. counties might be the most resilient and which the least resilient to ongoing and incoming climate change.

This was a multidisciplinary study for the benefit of government and planners and involved not only climate scientists, but also engineers, geographers, geologists, hydrologists, social scientists, demographers, urban planners, and political scientists. The survey also heavily factored in the regional geography, climate, the “built” environment (what structures exist, what engineering projects are in place) and the natural environment.

What the EPA developed was the Climate Resilience Screening Index (CRSI) for each county. If you do a little squinting at this EPA chart, which appears in an environmental publication, the Pacific Standard, you can see Western New York falls somewhere in the middle for the most part on the overall CRSI. Basically, the darker the blue, the better.

When factors are broken down, the upper right EPA chart seen here covers physical risk. (Again, a little squinting may be in order.)

In the risk category, Erie County fares better than the other Western New York counties, despite the number of homes in a flood plain. But other elements in other categories under consideration include governance (Western New York, surprisingly to me, does well there); age; education; how many homeowners participate in the National Flood Insurance Program; health; state of the local construction industry (to rebuild where necessary); infrastructure; and even the local societal tendency for neighbors to help other neighbors.

The EPA also factored in the frequency of certain climate and weather extremes. For Western New York, there are no direct impacts from tropical storm surges or hurricanes; nearly no impacts from rare high-end tornadoes; less life-threatening flash flooding, mudslides and wildfires; and — so far — fewer incidences of lengthy severe to extreme drought.  Even in the 2014 National Climate Assessment Report for the northeast United States, the summary paragraph for our part of the country includes sea level rise as a significant risk. Western New York will, obviously, avoid the latter.

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The incidence of heavy precipitation events has been and will continue to increase in many parts of the Midwest, Southeast and Northeast over years to come. There is evidence to suggest that the number of severe thunderstorms will be increasing, but no consistent evidence of an increase in tornadic severe storms. While lake temperatures, particularly those of Lake Erie, may go higher in a warming climate, that does not necessarily mean an increase in lake-effect snow. To the contrary, if we experience fewer polar air masses further out in time, the temperature contrast between the lake surface and the air aloft may not be sufficient to make lake snow as often.

While Western New York may begin to experience drought conditions more frequently, we are in no danger of becoming a semi-arid region. Those droughts we get are tough on agriculture and those who depend on underground water, true, but our most densely populated region is assured of Lake Erie water. The likelihood of four- and five-year droughts as have occurred in the southwest and California is extremely low.

Yet millions continue to migrate to coastal counties in the Gulf and southeast, where the risk of tropical cyclone storm surges, tidal flooding and wind damage will remain much higher — and will continue to worsen, due to the inexorable rise in sea levels. Millions migrate to the southwest, where water shortages already often reach crisis stage and will worsen.

This imperfect CRSI research by the EPA is useful up to a point. But when I see Dade and Broward counties in southeast Florida ranked similarly to Niagara County for environmental resilience, after multiple hurricane strikes, I know there are problems with the CRSI. I would venture a guess that every waking meteorologist and climate scientist would agree with my raised eyebrow.

I’m prejudiced. I love having four seasons. Yes, winter has gotten long in the tooth again — as forecast — in March, with its attendant doldrums. But when summer gets here we will have more than our share of days in the 80s with a breeze rather than stultifying day-after-day 90s with high humidity as in the southeast, or searing “dry” desert heat over 110 degrees.

So, if you’re made of hearty stock and can withstand our often long and snowy winters (which may grow a little shorter and a little less snowy for our grandchildren), and you can afford New York taxes, you’ll be living in a part of the country less likely to be severely and dangerously impacted by the ongoing warming climate than many other parts of the United States.

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