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Don Paul: In the face of warming climate, Buffalo keeps its cool

An article by Harold McNeil in Wednesday's Buffalo News quoted a climate adaptation expert in The Guardian newspaper calling Buffalo one of two cities in the U.S. as ideal climate refuges.

Basically, I agree with much of Jesse Keenan’s basic premise. Keenan, on the Harvard University faculty, is a renowned expert on climate adaptation and design innovation for population and business centers in the future in the face of the warming climate. His mission is to assist urban centers to become more resilient to the inevitable and ongoing rising sea levels, water shortages and other weather stresses and storms known to be linked to mean global warming.

As for Buffalo and Western New York, what makes us so special? There is the obvious premise of a cooler climate, true. It’s not a matter of no warming here. Pardon the pun, but it’s a matter of degree.

Buffalo and large parts of Western New York have a more marine environment due to our proximity to Lake Erie. Marine-modified air generally cannot heat up as much, or cool down quite as much in the winter. The most common wind direction in most of Western New York includes components of a Lake Erie influence, which is the reason Buffalo has never hit 100 degrees. Neither has Miami Beach, again due to the marine air. But Miami is already suffering some ravages of coastal flooding at high astronomical tides from rising sea levels, which will also exacerbate storm surges during nearby passages of hurricanes. As alluded to in McNeil’s article, large tracts of Florida’s coastal plain are at risk of encroachment from the sea over the coming century:

What is called “nuisance flooding” has already been on a marked increase in many coastal locales.

While some warming is occurring in the Great Lakes, it is mitigated compared, say, to the sprawling landmass of continental interiors because of the marine influence. Our growing seasons are lengthening over the years, with later average first frost dates and earlier last frost dates, not every year, but in the majority of years.

Even among Great Lakes cities, there can be significant temperature differences between Buffalo and Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Rochester and Milwaukee. Why is that? Our prevailing winds more frequently cross Lake Erie. Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Rochester and Milwaukee are more frequently prone to a land breeze with less marine influence than Buffalo receives. Rochester has reached 102 degrees. Milwaukee and Detroit have both made it to 105 degrees. Chicago’s Midway Airport once hit 111 degrees.

The other cities are also more prone to more severe and sometimes tornadic thunderstorms than Buffalo, because they less frequently receive the stabilizing, cooler breeze of their nearby lakes. I recall during my years in Detroit, violent thunderstorms were far more common than they are in Western New York. Since 1950, the Detroit National Weather Service reports 331 tornadoes have occurred in southeast Michigan, with 166 fatalities. One hundred and thirteen of those deaths occurred from a single F5 (now EF-5) killer which hit a town near Flint.

We may be nearly as vulnerable to excessive rainfall events, which have been occurring and are climate-modeled to increase in the warming climate, so our frequency of flooding and flash flooding may not differ much from other cities. We clearly don’t have such vulnerabilities as compared to the immediate coastal plain, mountainous terrain with more violent flash floods, or the flood potential of the Mississippi River flood plain.

Our cooler summers clearly lessen the threat posed by excessive heat, which is one of nature’s leading killers and is on the increase. We suffer from fewer droughts with less available fuel for wildfires compared to much of the West.

Our famed winters are indisputably cold and snowy compared to most of the rest of the lower 48. Buffalo’s average annual snowfall is undeniably high at 94.7 inches and is, of larger cities with over 250,000 population, the highest in the United States. Yes, Rochester and Syracuse average more but of cities our size and larger, Cleveland is No. 2 with 68 inches.  Here is the list supplied by NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center.

Many years, in most parts of the Buffalo Niagara area, most of their snow comes in smaller lake-effect events as opposed to dramatic lake-effect snowfalls in the Southtowns and hilly terrain.

Our greatest loss of life to a winter event was the Blizzard of '77, when 29 people were killed, most succumbing to hypothermia and sometimes trapped in stranded cars. Yes, cold can be a killer, and it is especially hardest on the elderly and infants, as well as those with chronic health problems. And yes, major snow events can be paralyzing. But it’s not difficult to compare the more acute hazards posed by tornadoes, hurricanes, heat and flooding to arrive at a more benign, less destructive picture for Western New York's climate. Still, we can’t kid ourselves and deny the stresses brought on by our winters. They’re there, but they are usually less acute.

As for the future of our winter climate, much remains unsettled. Some have speculated our lake temperatures will begin to warm, lending more evaporation of water vapor into the lower atmosphere for both lake-effect rain in the early autumn and snow later on. However, there may be fewer outbreaks in many years of bitter continental polar/CP air masses crossing the lakes. Without a big temperature contrast between a warmer lake surface and bitter cold air a few thousand feet up, lake effect might still lessen and weaken.

Finally, there is high confidence that water shortages in the Southwest will worsen in the face of a warming climate and growing population, as there is for more episodes of extreme heat stress over much of the Sun Belt, and possibly more droughts there as well.

It may be well after I’m gone, but I personally have high confidence there will eventually be some reverse migration to the North, to the Rust Belt cities and to places like Buffalo.

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