Friday, December 2, 2011

612. Climate Change: The Vanishing Adirondacks

A river flows  in the Adirondacks
By Lisa W. Foderaro, The New York Times, December 2, 2011

PAUL SMITHS, N.Y. — Jerry Jenkins, an ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, narrates with encyclopedic precision the serene, timeless landscape of the Osgood River, as he moves past it with each dip of his canoe paddle.

That is sphagnum moss carpeting the banks of a bog that stretches across hundreds of acres, a signature feature of northern landscapes. Those are tamaracks and black spruces — cold-tolerant conifer trees found mostly in Canada — rising from the shores. A pair of gray jays alights on a branch: they, too, are at the southern end of their range.
Mr. Jenkins, who is the author of the book Climate Change in the Adirondacks: The Path to Sustainability,” spends much of his time on the water and in the woods, documenting the ecosystem with a notebook and a camera. He thus brings an unusual perspective to the scene. Where a casual observer might behold diversity and continuity, he projects decades into the future and finds absence and loss.
“Nothing we see here is found at temperatures 10 degrees warmer, and very little makes it to five degrees warmer,” Mr. Jenkins said matter-of-factly on a mild fall day. “We will be in a climate that this community has never known in its history. One has to go back to world climate levels we haven’t seen in 15 million years.”
Such warming is what scientists’ temperature models forecast if significant steps are not taken, and soon, to cut carbon emissions. The Adirondack Mountains, host to two Winter Olympics, could lose much of their ice and snow by the end of the century.
A rise of 10 degrees in temperature would put the six-million-acre state park, a mix of public and private lands, in the same climate zone as the mountains of North Carolina and Georgia. So while Mr. Jenkins pursues his field studies and lectures, he also makes time to capture the present, taking some 30,000 photographs in recent years.
“Maybe it’s a baseline measurement, or maybe it’s an elegy,” Mr. Jenkins, 68, said of his photographic record of alpine flowers and mighty pines. “We may be the last generation to see the big bogs and the boreal creatures.”
A major study of the impact of climate change on New York State drew similar conclusions. In a 600-page report published last month, scientists from Cornell and Columbia Universities, as well as the City University of New York, said that temperatures would rise as much as nine degrees by the 2080s. They also projected the decline and eventual loss of spruce-fir forests and alpine tundra in the Adirondacks.
Mr. Jenkins has yet to detect signs of stress in trees and plants, which respond slowly to alterations in temperature. Northern mammals like moose and pine martens are holding steady, though they, too, are sure to suffer. “They are both at their thermal limits here,” he said.
Yet there is ample evidence elsewhere that the region is already reacting to a warmer climate. “For the hunters, farmers, hikers and birders, the change in the climate, especially in the past 10 to 15 years, is just too great to write off,” he said.
Hard frosts that a generation ago came in mid-September now arrive in October. Lake Champlain, a huge freshwater body that divides New York and Vermont, once froze over completely every winter, but now remains open in the middle some years.
Ornithologists have recorded recent declines in northern bird species like the black-backed woodpecker, olive-sided flycatcher and rusty blackbird. Loggers have told Mr. Jenkins that their winter operating season — the period when they haul timber over frozen earth — has been shortened by almost six weeks.
Until recently, Mr. Jenkins said, he thought climate change would have its initial impact on nature, and only later would it affect environments made by people. But then came Tropical Storm Irene in August. In the High Peaks region, up to 10 inches of rain sent boulders, trees and torrents of water down mountainsides, destroying roads and houses. That storm followed persistent flooding last spring that devastated farms in the Champlain Valley. (Scientists say intense rainfalls are a hallmark of climate change.)
From a young age, Mr. Jenkins was captivated by nature. The son of an Air Force pilot and a nurse’s aide, he grew up mostly on Long Island. “My mother, bless her soul, read me ‘The Boys Book of Snakes’ and books about the seashore,” he recalled.
He took to the mountains at Williams College in western Massachusetts, where he was admitted at 15, studying philosophy, math and physics. Despite the fact that he is missing his right forearm, a result of a birth defect, Mr. Jenkins became an outdoorsman. Even now, he spends days camping alone — “I’ve never had an intense experience in a motel,” he said — and can hoist a three-man canoe over his head by himself.

“He knows everything about everything,” said David W. Wolfe, a professor of plant and soil ecology at Cornell who worked on the climate study. “He’s that old-fashioned sort of naturalist who, through detailed observation and having a breadth of knowledge, can put all the pieces together. There are fewer and fewer people like that out there.”
After doing freelance work for government and conservation groups for 35 years, Mr. Jenkins joined the staff of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Adirondack program in 2005. He lives south of the Adirondacks, in White Creek, where his 160-year-old farmhouse is heated by a wood stove and powered by solar panels. He recently bought a Prius.
During his climate presentations, Mr. Jenkins tries to end on an upbeat note. He caps his alarming assessment — illustrated with charts and maps and landing like a punch to the solar plexus — with a prescription for personal change. His book on Adirondack climate, published last year by Cornell University Press, lays out strategies for residents, business owners and local officials.
He recently spoke at a youth climate summit at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake. Despite the audience’s consumerist tendencies, he preached thrift.
“Thrift means not buying stuff, turning down the heat, not making five trips to town a week,” he said. “The easy things help pay for the hard things, like solar panels and hybrid cars.”
In his private moments, however, Mr. Jenkins admits to pondering this time in history with an existential foreboding. And he speaks of the Adirondack landscape with a certain wistfulness, waxing lyrical about conifers and sedges, long vistas and light on water, “peacefulness and oldness.” Then he goes back to work.

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