Our growing season is longer: What gardeners need to know about climate change in WNY

map of climate zones in Western New York
Stephen Vermette, professor of geography at Buffalo State College, has identified five climate zones in Western New York. Image courtesy Buffalo State College

 

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

map showing average temperatures in autumn in WNY
This map shows average temperatures in the five climate zones of Western New York during autumn. Data Source: PRISM Climate Group, Oregon State University, http://prism.oregonstate.edu

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

map of average winter temperatures in climate zones in WNY
This map shows average temperatures in the five climate zones of Western New York during winter. Data Source: PRISM Climate Group, Oregon State University, http://prism.oregonstate.edu

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

Ontario Coastal

map of average spring temperatures in climate zones in WNY
This map shows average temperatures in the five climate zones of Western New York during spring. Data Source: PRISM Climate Group, Oregon State University, http://prism.oregonstate.edu

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.

Erie Coastal

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.

Southern Tier

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.

Niagara Frontier

map of average summer temperatures in climate zones in WNY
This map shows average temperatures in the five climate zones of Western New York during summer. Data Source: PRISM Climate Group, Oregon State University, http://prism.oregonstate.edu

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.

Urban

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.

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6 Comments on “Our growing season is longer: What gardeners need to know about climate change in WNY

  1. Although I welcome any studies on the issue of climate change, it should be always remembered that climate around the world has always been in a state of flux, and any research we are able to offer is just a small sample when compared to the age of our planet. As nursery growers who field grow their plants, we are always aware of changes in length of the growing season, and other factors which affect our growing conditions. Two factors I didn’t see mentioned is one, the effect of the ice boom across the Niagara River and how it has a micro-climate impact on when Spring really arrives. Also secondly, in 1965 the air quality in the region is not what it is today. The loss of most of our major industrial base, also means that those contaminates are no longer a factor they once were; and that industrial base was so much larger that most post baby-boomers can realize or imagine.

  2. As a follow-up, I have seen presentations geared to the comparison of our USDA Zone Maps versus those created by Natural Resourses Canada, who use additional metrics in developing their models, and thus their growing zone maps. Perhaps it’s time to review our USDA models and look to see if they are in need of updating. We are zoned 6A because of our closeness to Lake Erie, but we can grow plants which wouldn’t survive in another part of the country with the same rating, because we have the snow cover, and they have frost heave. For us, the combinations of 2016 drought with moderate snow cover the following Winter was much more of a factor for us. With regard to views put forth in the “Gardeners Guide To Global Warming”, while some ideas have merit, one needs to remember that “Newtons Law” applies to these methods as well; is your new rain-barrel festering an increased mosquito population. It’s always wise, despite what we are often led to believe, that the science is never settled; we always discover more in time, and we should act prudently and not just hastily just to feel good about what we think we are accomplishing.

  3. Stephen Vermette sent me this info regarding the ice boom: Anthony raises an interesting issue regarding the ice boom across the Niagara River and its impact on Spring’s arrival. This is one of Buffalo’s persistent myths. The cold waters and the spring ice buildup at the eastern end of Lake Erie has more to do with the concave geography at that end of the lake and the prevailing southwest winds that concentrate the ice. Prior to the ice boom installation in 1964-65, ice accumulated and jammed at the lake river confluence, even when ice freely flow down the Niagara River. And yes, the cold waters and ice had a cooling impact then, as they do today. While the ice boom does limit the ice that flows down the Niagara River, it is not acting as a dam – the ice accumulates whether or not the ice boom is present. I authored a study in 2005 (Journal of Great Lakes Research) looking at shoreline air temperatures for pre- and post-ice boom years and found no impact on Spring temperatures.

  4. Anthony, it sure would be nice if there was some easy way to solve complex problems! Yes, we have to be alert for harmful side effects. I love my rain barrels– they help me to get water to areas of the garden I wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise– but no, we don’t want shallow puddles of water to form on them where mosquitoes can breed. I wouldn’t avoid using rain barrels altogether–That would be throwing the baby out with the rain barrel water! 🙂 I’d just get rid of the puddles or use a different lid where the puddles don’t form. Even something like composting leaves might not be as straightforward as you may think, and I may address this in a future article. The Climate Friendly Gardener compares composting leaves at home to municipal composting and to landfills. Home composting is better than landfills or incinerators, but municipal composting may be better than home composting. (See page 7, Step 4. Expand Recycling to the Garden.) It can be complicated, which is why we have to keep learning and keep doing what we can.

    And to your first point: I’m not sure if the USDA zone maps are outdated (maybe they are, I don’t know), but they are definitely limited. They paint with a very broad brush. That’s why I believe the more detailed information about our area that Stephen Vermette has produced is so valuable.

  5. Hi Connie,
    Thanks for the follow-up. I appreciate Steven’s insight, and I guess the real point I was getting at is the years we don’t have accumulation of ice on the lake, we enjoy a more temperate Spring; but he’s right we always blame the ice boom (seemingly incorrectly) for causing what can be like a big ice box effect, for extending our Winter.
    And just to clarify, we’re all in favor of water reclamation; the ionized rainwater is better for your plants anyway, but I was using it as a basic sample to address what can be a larger issue.
    We would look forward to an article on composting, and we have the finest example of municipal composting here in Orchard Park. It amazes us that other localities don’t copy what for us is a wonderful resource which pays for itself. The only downside is that if we promote them too much, we risk missing out on compost and mulch we use in a given season.

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