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Editorial: Why not us? WNY could become haven for climate refugees

As climate change takes hold, we’ll take good news where we can find it. A recent National Climate Assessment by the federal government detailed some reasons for optimism for Western New York.

We’re likely to have shorter winters, earlier spring weather and, unlike coastal cities, we won’t have to cope with rising sea levels and rampaging hurricanes. If being in the Great Lakes region makes us “flyover country,” we’re fine with that. You can find us playing bingo, or golf or working in the garden while our neighbors from the coasts build their sandbag levees.

It’s tempting to indulge in some schadenfreude at the possible misfortunes of our coastal cousins – karmic payback for Johnny Carson’s Buffalo jokes. And it’s fun to muse about our region as the future Riviera on Lake Erie. But climate change is serious business, of course. There will be advantages to living in Western New York by the middle of the century, but there will also be challenges. A general rise in temperature of 3-5 degrees in our region is sure to have consequences we can’t foresee.

According to the report, by 2040, the onset of winter weather – as defined by the first freeze – could take place from 10 to 22 days later than it does now. The effect would be more pronounced in Buffalo and the Northtowns, less so in Southern Erie County’s ski country.

The report says things will accelerate more dramatically by 2070, when an 18-year-old of today is turning 70. By then the first freeze could take place one month later than it does today, and the last freeze in spring up to two weeks earlier.

A shorter winter sounds like a positive for people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder, for participants in outdoor, warm-weather sports, and for cyclists, hikers and gardeners. And a longer summer growing season would benefit farmers.

But would the region’s ski resorts remain profitable? Will snowplowing services get less business? Pockets of Western New York’s economy will be disrupted, to the gain of some and detriment of others.

Also, a shorter winter does not equate to a milder one. Warmer temperatures could make the snow season shorter but more intense.

“Longer ice-free periods on the Great Lakes can result in more lake-effect snowfalls,” the scientists wrote in the climate report. That rings a bell with any Western New Yorker who waits for reports that Lake Erie has frozen over, signaling the end of lake-effect snow season.

The report stated that eventually many of our “snowfall events” will turn to rain.

One threat mentioned in the report is the possible increase in invasive species, such as zebra mussels, quagga mussels and sea lampreys, who could find the warmer lake water more inviting. The new water conditions could also increase algal blooms.

On the plus side, fish species such as yellow perch and lake whitefish could see their populations increase in the warmer water, a boon to anglers and commercial fisheries.

The report suggested Western New York’s economy could take a modest hit – more than 3 percent – because of infrastructure changes necessitated by climate change.

But we believe the opposite is also possible: that Buffalo could become a haven for climate refugees.

We don’t have fancy beaches, towering redwoods or Hawaiian sunsets – as Garrison Keillor says of Minnesotans, we’re not a paradise people – but our region may become very desirable to people whose homes are wiped out by hurricanes or wildfires.

Buffalo has a reputation for being a welcoming city to refugees from other countries. Perhaps our region’s best opportunity of the 21st century is leveraging our greatest natural resource – abundant fresh water in our two Great Lakes.

The Erie Canal made Western New York boom in the early 1800s, and Niagara Falls and the generation of electricity made us boom at the turn of the last century.

Let’s do what we can to slow climate change, but at the same time be smart about capitalizing on it as population shifts occur in the United States.

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