by Connie Oswald Stofko
Our growing season in Western New York is longer than it used to be– two weeks longer than it was in 1965, according to Stephen Vermette, professor of geography in the Department of Geography & Planning at Buffalo State College. Now the growing season starts about a week earlier in spring and lasts about a week longer in autumn.
This is just one of the findings of Vermette’s research into how climate change is affecting Western New York.
When it comes to gardening, we want to know what conditions are like in our own backyard. Vermette’s work is giving us more detail than we’ve had before when it comes to the way climate change is affecting different parts of Western New York.
Vermette has mapped out five climate zones in Western New York, describing what each is like and how they differ from each other.
“We want to focus very much on local climate,” he said. “We need to see how we are going to respond to climate change.”
To spread the word, he will be collaborating with the local group Designing to Live Sustainably. He is looking to that group to provide community input as well as offer ways that residents can adapt to climate change in Western New York.
Changing climate of Western New York as a whole
Surprise: No change in precipitation
When Vermette took a closer look at how climate is changing in Western New York, he got some surprises.
The broad description of the new normal for the Northeast doesn’t hold up in some ways for Western New York. The expectation for the Northeast is that there will be an increase in rainfall; the rain will occur in short, hard downpours, and that in between there will be long periods of dry weather and some drought.
But looking at past weather data, Vermette found that in Western New York there appears to be no change in the amount of precipitation.
“That surprised me,” Vermette said. “There’s not a trend up or down.”
There’s no change in heavy precipitation, snowfall or lake effect snow events, either. In addition, severe and extreme drought events do not appear to be increasing across Western New York.
When we talk about what the climate is like in the Northeast, we’re painting a picture in broad brushstrokes, he said. Western New York doesn’t have the same conditions as Maine or Boston, and climate varies even within Western New York.
Surprise: Wind speeds decreasing
Another unexpected finding was that it appears that average annual wind speeds in Western New York are decreasing.
“That surprised me, too,” Vermette said. “That’s why we need to study our local climate.”
The finding on wind speed is based on data from only the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Average annual wind speeds were about 11.7 mph in the early 1960s and have decreased to about 9.6 mph in the last few years, a rate of decrease of 0.4 mph/decade.
But while average wind speeds are decreasing, it appears that high winds during thunderstorms may be on the increase.
That’s important because when we think about hazardous weather, we may think of snow, but wind is more hazardous because high winds knock down trees and power lines, he explained.
Warming air and water
Overall, Vermette’s findings show that Western New York is warming, and it’s warming at a rate that’s just slightly below that of the U.S. average, which is about of about .5 degrees Fahrenheit per decade. However, some places in Western New York may be warming at a rate of 1 degree per decade, which is pretty high.
This warming can be seen in both maximum and minimum temperatures, but it’s not equally divided between seasons and places.
For example, summer daytime highs are not expected to increase appreciably– Don’t expect more days over 90 degrees than we normally experience. However, minimum temperatures could increase. Places along the Lake Erie coast such as Fredonia might see increases in minimum temperatures (0.7 degree per decade).
“We need to continue looking at this,” Vermette said.
Lake Erie’s temperature is increasing at a rate comparable to the air temperature increase. Last ice out dates are 16 days earlier since 1965.
The five climate zones of Western New York
The boundary of the Ontario Coastal zone is defined by Lake Ontario to the north and the Niagara Escarpment to the south.
The Ontario Coastal zone is seasonal. You’ll see it most during the autumn and winter months when temperatures are moderated by the lake and are some of the warmest in Western New York. When it comes to extremes in winter temperatures (the coldest one can expect it to get), this zone is the least extreme, getting only as cold as 0 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. In spring, the Ontario Coastal zone is confined to only a few miles from the cooling influence of the Lake Ontario shoreline. The zone is absent in the summer. The Ontario Coastal zone consistently experiences the lowest rain and snow totals of Western New York.
The Erie Coastal zone is bound by Lake Erie to the west and the Chautauqua Ridge to the east.
It experiences moderated winter and autumn temperatures – some of the warmest in Western New York. The Erie Coastal zone experiences mild extremes in winter temperature (0 to -5 degrees Fahrenheit in the south and -5 to -10 degrees Fahrenheit in the north). In spring and summer a sharp temperature gradient is apparent, with the coolest temperatures along shoreline, especially where the zone is most confined in the south. The Erie Coastal zone experiences more rain and lake effect snow than the Ontario Coastal zone, and is more prone to severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.
The Southern Tier zone is defined by its elevation – the highest in Western New York.
Temperatures are consistently the coolest in Western New York, with warmer temperatures confined to the river valleys within the zone. The Southern Tier zone experiences the greatest extreme in winter temperatures (-10 to -20 degrees Fahrenheit.) Precipitation is the highest in Western New York, due to the prevailing southwest winds and upslope flow. (Upslope flow refers to air coming off of Lake Erie and flowing up due to higher elevations inland. Rising air tends to cool and cooler air hold less moisture, resulting in the moisture falling out as rain or snow.) Precipitation is relatively consistent across the zone in spring and summer, but in the autumn and winter there is more precipitation in the west than the east (a west-to-east decreasing gradient). The Southern Tier zone is most prone to lake effect snow, thunderstorms and tornadoes.
The Niagara Frontier zone is a transition between the Ontario Coastal and Southern Tier zones.
Temperatures in the autumn and winter are midway between the Ontario Coastal and Southern Tier zones. The winter cold extremes (-5 to -10 degrees Fahrenheit) are midway between those of the Ontario Coastal and Southern Tier zones, too. In spring and summer, the Niagara Frontier zone divides into north and south subzones, where the northern part of the Niagara Frontier zone exhibits the warmest temperatures in Western New York (extending north across the Niagara Escarpment), and the southern subzone exhibits cooler temperatures, following a cooling gradient to the Southern Tier zone. Precipitation generally increases from north to south, and is most apparent with snowfall. Severe weather follows a similar pattern.
The Urban zone is defined by the City of Buffalo and its first-ring suburbs. The temperatures are warmer due to the urban heat island effect.
When it comes to winter cold extremes, there is a lack of data for this zone, Vermette said. The Urban heat Island impact is usually greatest in the winter, so it’s likely that the Urban zone is two or three degrees warmer on average than the Niagara Frontier. However, they still need to quantify this.
We can expect warmer temperatures, by a few degrees, in all seasons. The exception is the area immediately adjacent to Lake Erie that experiences cooler temperatures in spring and summer when winds are off the lake. The Urban zone will be the last in Western New York to succumb to frost in the autumn.
More data is needed
Vermette would like more data to work with and is looking for ways to fill in the blanks.
For this kind of work, you want data that is consistent, but weather records have been inconsistent over the years.
In addition to the main weather station at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, the National Weather Service maintains some co-op weather stations, which are staffed by trained volunteers.
“The problem is that the co-op stations come and go,” Vermette said. One co-op station might have records from only 1940-1970 while another might have data from the 1990s to the present. If one station closes down, it might be replaced by a station that is 10 miles away.
In the Erie Coastal zone, Fredonia is the only spot that has 50 years of records.
“We need more than Fredonia to talk about the Erie Coastal zone,” he said.
New York State Mesonet has some automated stations, but those have come in just the last few years, he said, so the records don’t go back very far.
For most stations, Vermette used data from 1965 to 2016. He chose to start with 1965 because hemispheric and U.S. temperature data suggest that the influence of greenhouse gases were greatest after 1965. Also, if he went further back in time, he would not have a sufficient number of weather stations to work with.
One way to work around the lack of consistent weather data might be to turn to orchardists or fruit farmers. Vermette would like to get data on budding times. This would show how the environment is responding to a changing climate and help us to make assumptions about the climate.
Why should we worry about climate change?
At first glance, climate change may not seem so bad for Western New York.
After all, we now some warmer temperatures and a longer growing season. Cold hardy plants such as snapdragons can be enjoyed for a longer stretch, and you could experiment with riskier plantings.
“I live in a 5a USDA Plant Hardiness zone,” Vermette said, “and I am experimenting with plantings of Mexican hydrangeas,” which are hardy only to zone 7a.
But there are drawbacks, too.
“One that comes to mind is the northern migration of garden pests,” he said.
We might also have to contend with new weeds and diseases. And if a milder climate means we can grow plants that we couldn’t grow before, it could mean that we won’t be able to grow old favorites.
And climate change doesn’t affect just Western New York.
“A warming planet is a global issue, with global implications,” Vermette said. “And we should do whatever we can to mitigate this change.”
When we talk about mitigation, we’re not just talking about ways to adapt or get used to climate change, but to take steps to try to slow down climate change.
You can get ideas on how to mitigate climate change in The Gardeners Guide to Global Warming: Challenges and Solutions.