Gov. Kathy Hochul has used the term “unprecedented” in several press conferences over the past few months to describe weather events such as heavy snowfall in Buffalo, unhealthy air quality from Canadian wildfires and, most recently, flash flooding.
“These are unprecedented weather events that hit us time and time again,” the governor said at a July 10 briefing on flooding in the Hudson Valley.
Are they really “unprecedented” and is this our new normal?
Andrew Vander Jacht, who directs the Applied Forest and Ecology Lab at SUNY-ESF, said that all the signs and records show that these are unprecedented events and that climate change is real. He said that most climate variables can be depicted as a normal distribution curve.
“A lot of people think of climate change as a shift in that peak to average,” Vander Jacht said. “When people show a worldwide increase of 1.6 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial times, that’s not too scary, right? That’s just a shift in that distribution.”
But what’s happening in climate change is not just a deviation from the mean, but an almost flattening of the curve, Vander Yacht said. This skews the normal distribution, creating more variation around the mean and a greater frequency of extreme events.
“We have events that are occurring, that are novel, that have never happened, that are outside of the normal distribution that we have in the historical record of climate,” Vander Jacht said.
VanderYacht said what worries him about northeast Canadian wildfire trends is that East Coast biodiversity differs from West Coast species. This, he said, has led to the composition of our forests favoring fire-sensitive, disturbed and intolerant species.
“Those trends will collide with predicted future fire rates,” Vander Jacht said. “We have fire-sensitive forests colliding with future increases in wildfire activity, which is a recipe for ecological disaster and serious degradation of those forest systems.”
These unprecedented events are like a type pf whiplash for forest ecosystems. Vander Yacht said that variability can make it difficult for a species to find its place.
He said the sugar maple and oak trees illustrate two sides of the same coin, and the frequency and climate of drought will not favor sugar maple growth.
Vander Jacht explains that while forest management can increase forest resilience, a key problem is that the rate of change is outpacing the rate at which people can respond to those changes.
“Forests have a very difficult time keeping up with the extreme variability that we create in our climate,” Vander Jacht said. “The amount of energy we’re putting into our atmosphere and our oceans and all the impacts from climate change are making it really hard to sustain our tree species and wildlife.”
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