WASHINGTON – Western New York appears poised to escape the worst effects of a changing climate – even though warmer weather will transform the region in the coming decades.
Coastal waters won't inundate Buffalo like they might New York City by the end of the century; in fact, the Great Lakes coastlines will likely expand very slightly as lake water evaporates. And since Buffalo won't have to cope with rising sea levels and fierce hurricanes, its economy won't shrink as dramatically as Miami's and Houston's are expected to shrink. While farms near the lakes will suffer from increased lake-effect snow and eventually rain, some of the region's inland farmland could thrive.
Those are among the findings that matter most to the Buffalo region in the recently released National Climate Assessment.
But those findings don't mean Buffalo-area residents should rest easy. According to the scientists from 13 federal agencies who prepared the report, climate change could make the air we breathe in Buffalo less healthy in the coming decades. Warmer waters could allow invasive species and algal blooms to thrive in Lake Erie. And the weather overall could become so wild that it would even wreak havoc at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.
And it's all because of one central finding in the 1,600-plus page study that applies worldwide:
"Without significant greenhouse gas mitigation, the increase in global annual average temperature could reach 9 degrees F or more by the end of this century," the report concluded.
Here's a closer look at what that finding, and the rest of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, mean for Western New York:
The most noticeable changes
The Buffalo area is expected to be 3 to 5 degrees F warmer, on average, by the middle of the century.
Winter will come later and spring will come earlier in Buffalo as more carbon is released into the atmosphere, causing the planet to warm. The only question is how much shorter winter will be.
According to the scientists who prepared the report, the length of our future winters depends mostly on future carbon emissions. Carbon, released into the atmosphere largely through the burning of oil and coal, warms the atmosphere. So the slower the world moves away from fossil fuels, the warmer the climate will become – even in Western New York.
Here, the first fall freeze could take place anywhere from 10 to 22 days later than it does now starting in the year 2040. That's a wide range, and it depends not only on future carbon levels, but also on where exactly in Western New York you happen to be in the middle of the century.
Under the report's warmest-case scenario, the City of Buffalo and most parts north would see upwards of another three weeks of relative warmth before cold snaps start. Most other parts of the region would see about two additional weeks of warmer fall weather, while Southern Erie County's ski country would remain above freezing for only about an additional week.
Things change much more dramatically, though, after the year 2070, when winter would start a month later in parts of the region.
The last freeze in the spring would come between six and 14 days earlier in much of Western New York starting in 2040. And starting in the year 2070, the last spring freeze would arrive upwards of a month earlier.
Don't take all that to mean that Buffalo will finally get a break when it comes to winter weather. Warmer temperatures could make the snow season both shorter and worse.
"Longer ice-free periods on the Great Lakes can result in more lake-effect snowfalls," the scientists noted.
But even that will change if the climate warms dramatically.
"Reductions in lake ice may increase the frequency of lake-effect snows until winters become so warm that snowfall events shift to rain," the scientists wrote.
The warming lakes
The Great Lakes will change as the climate warms – but not in the radical way that the oceans are expected to change.
Melting polar ice is expected to wreak havoc in the oceans, flooding the coastlines and spawning more horrific hurricanes. But that melted ice isn't expected to make its way to the Great Lakes, which will likely evaporate slightly due to the longer summers.
That evaporation isn't expected to change lake levels nearly as much as they've fluctuated for other reasons over the decades. Evaporation in the coming decades will likely reduce water levels "approximately 6 inches for Lakes Michigan and Huron and less for the other lakes," the scientists said. That compares to a recent rise in lake levels of about a foot last year in Lake Ontario, which caused major flood damage, as well as Lake Erie levels that were 22 inches above average in November.
Important changes will take place beneath the lakes' surface, though, if the scientists' predictions are correct. Those changes could be good or bad, or a combination of both.
Warmer water means a healthier environment for invasive species such as zebra mussels, quagga mussels and sea lampreys. These non-native invaders could thrive in lakes in the coming decades, overwhelming government efforts to control the creatures.
At the same time, the lakes' sport and commercial fisheries could benefit from the warming water.
"If sufficient food is available, this will enhance the growth rates for economically important species like yellow perch and lake whitefish even though they are classed as cool-water and coldwater fishes," the climate report said.
But there's no guarantee there will be sufficient food for those fish, given the other challenges climate change poses for the lakes.
Most notably, longer summers could mean lower levels of oxygen in the deepest parts of the lakes and a lack of nutrients closer to the surface, a problem that could be made worse by what's happening on land.
"Especially in Lake Erie, runoff from agricultural watersheds can carry large volumes of nutrients and sediments that can reduce water quality, potentially leading to ... inadequate oxygen supply, an occurrence that is predicted to be more likely as the climate continues to change," the scientists wrote.
And if that's not bad enough, "increased water temperatures and nutrient inputs also contribute to algal blooms, including harmful cyanobacterial algae that are toxic to people, pets, and many native species," the scientists added.
The economy and agriculture
The report predicts that the warming climate will lead to economic disaster, thanks to increasingly devastating storms and wildfires and the need to move millions of people away from the rising oceans.
“The potential need for millions of people and billions of dollars of coastal infrastructure to be relocated in the future creates challenging legal, financial, and equity issues that have not yet been addressed," the authors of the report wrote.
Not surprisingly, though, that's not something Buffalo really has to worry about. And as a result, the report predicts that the local economic damage from climate change will be comparatively minimal.
The economy, measured in terms of hours worked, could shrink by 5 percent or more in South Texas and much of Florida as warmer temperatures make some areas uninhabitable by the end of the century, the report predicted. Meantime, the Western New York economy is expected to shrink no more than 3 percent.
But why would the economy shrink at all in cooler regions?
"This is largely because our society and infrastructure have been built for the climate of the past, and changes from those historical climate conditions impose costs and management challenges," the authors wrote.
For example, wilder storms will inundate older sewer systems with storm water to the point where they threaten water supplies in some parts of the Great Lakes region. Those same storms are also expected to cause trouble for farms near the Great Lakes. Higher ozone levels in the atmosphere could damage people's health, and therefore the economy of the region.
Then again, climate change won't be all bad for the region's economy.
"For example, current benefits of warming include longer growing seasons for agriculture, more carbon dioxide for plants, and longer ice-free periods for shipping on the Great Lakes," the report said.
Those longer growing seasons will be particularly beneficial for farmland that's removed from the worst of Lake Erie's wrath, such as in Wyoming and Cattaraugus counties.
But anything that's anywhere near the increasingly wild weather of the Great Lakes region could prove to be under threat.
That's why the climate report, citing a Defense Department document, listed the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station – Niagara County's largest employer – as among the nation's military facilities endangered by climate change.
"Flooding, extreme temperatures, wind, drought, wildfire," that Defense Department document said.