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Climate change is affecting northeastern Pennsylvania

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DDan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Josh Heinbaugh, 20, of Smithton rides his bike along the snow covered Wolf Rocks Trail in Laurel Summit State Park on Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018.

SCRANTON, Pa. — The second-warmest year on record in Northeast Pennsylvania would have passed with little fanfare in 2016 but for one scorching anomaly. Between late May and early September that year, the high temperature hit at least 90 degrees on 22 days, more than triple the area’s annual average of 6.3 such days. It included an unusually rare stretch in late July when the high topped 90 on nine straight days, the first time that had happened since 1953. Just months later, on March 14-15, 2017, a blizzard pummeled the region with 23.6 inches of snow, the most ever from a single winter storm.

Now imagine a time when such aberrations are the norm, when weather events that now rate superlatives — largest, most, worst, first — become commonplace.

It’s closer than you think.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment, completed last month, reinforced what scientists have long known: Climate change is already making its mark on Pennsylvania, and the state — the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area included — faces a future that will be warmer, wetter and challenged by all that entails.

“One thing is the extremes get more extreme with climate change,” said Pittsburgh native Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science for the Union of Concerned Scientists and a co-author of part of the NCA report.

“So whatever messy weather you don’t like in Pennsylvania, you’re going to get more of that, and it’s going to be more severe. That’s kind of the bottom line with climate change.”

It will slice across nearly every aspect of life in northeast Pennsylvania:

— Summer temperatures will continue to rise, with heat waves becoming more frequent and intense. Under the worst-case scenario, the average number of days with temperatures over 90 degrees could rise to more than 40 by the middle of the century, with ramifications for everything from human health to dairy production.

— Winter recreation will take a hit as the warmer, wetter conditions lead to a truncated snow season. Even with advances in snowmaking technology, ski resorts may find it difficult to stay viable. Snowmobiling could vanish.

— On the agricultural front, a longer summer growing season will present opportunities, but other factors, including changes in rainfall patterns and more intense heat, could require producers to rethink the crops they grow. Hotter summer temperatures especially could pose problems for dairy and poultry farmers.

— Changing conditions will disrupt existing ecosystems. The optimal habitat for some important tree species will shift to higher elevations and latitudes. Many bird, wildlife and fish species may see their habitats shrink. Invasive species could flourish.

— Not only will more precipitation fall as rain, heavy rain events will become frequent. That will mean a greater flood potential in a region with aging infrastructure, from river levees to storm sewers, that may be inadequate to handle more extreme precipitation.

Health

Michael Cummings feels the tickle in his throat and knows. He’s in trouble.

The 37-year-old Taylor man has suffered with asthma since he was a child. A dry, scratchy throat typically is the first sign that his seasonal allergies are kicking in, which, combined with his asthma, will soon turn him into a “walking medicine cabinet,” he said.

This past summer, with its extreme heat and excessive rain, produced more airborne irritants that made his life particularly miserable. He dreads reading reports that predict climate change will lead to even hotter and wetter weather in Pennsylvania in the ensuing decades.

“The humidity is what gets me. When the air is heavy, it’s like breathing through a coffee straw,” he said. “It’s getting worse all the time and it’s never going to get better unless global warming is addressed.”

Since the start of the 20th Century, the mean temperature in Pennsylvania has increased by more than 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit and is projected to be as much as 5.4 degrees warmer by the middle of the century, according to a 2015 study by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The annual precipitation rate also increased by 10 percent over the last 100 years and is expected to increase another 8 percent by mid-century, the report said.

That spells trouble for residents’ health, particularly the elderly and people with respiratory problems like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said Dr. Terry Lenahan, a pulmonologist with Delta Medix in Scranton, and Dr. Tina George, an Avoca physician with Commonwealth Health System.

“Oppressive heat makes people with normal lungs feel sluggish,” Lenahan said. “Can you imagine if you have impaired lungs? It takes it to the next level for those patients.”

Lenahan and George said they treated significantly more people with respiratory problems this past summer and their ailments lasted for a longer period of time.

“People read about climate change and the see a degree or two change,” George said. “That does not seem like a lot, but for the elderly … who are more sensitive to heat, those small degrees of change in temperature can make a big difference.”

Health officials are equally concerned increasingly hot and humid weather will result in a higher concentration of deer ticks infected with Lyme disease and mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus.

Northeast Pennsylvania already has a high incidence rate of Lyme disease. In 2010, there were a total of 152 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in Lackawanna, Luzerne, Wyoming, Pike and Wayne counties, according to the state Department of Health. That figure skyrocketed to 612 in 2017.

Part of the hike is attributed to more accurate tracking and reporting. Changes in the region’s weather also contributed to the spike, said Erica Smithwick, professor of geography and director of the Ecology Institute at Penn State University.

“In general we have had milder winters and warmer summers,” Smithwick said. “We used to get a hard freeze that would kill ticks over the winter. Now they are able to survive through winter into the next season.”

The changing climate also will impact mosquitoes, which flourish in hot, steamy weather. That increases the likelihood that more of the blood-sucking insects will be infected with West Nile virus that can be transmitted to humans.

The virus was detected in mosquitoes in all but 10 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties in 2018, according to the state’s West Nile Virus Control Program. There were a total of 88 cases of West Nile neuroinvasive disease in Pennsylvania and 1,542 cases in the nation as of Dec. 11 this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

By 2090 it is projected the number of cases of West Nile neuroinvasive disease in the Northeastern United States will increase by 490 per year, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment report.

— TERRIE MORGAN-BESECKER

Ecosystems

By the end of the century, William Penn might not recognize his woods.

A warming planet is expected to bring significant consequences for Pennsylvania’s forestry during the next several decades. The northeast corner of the state is not exempt.

“If we don’t get emissions under control rapidly, things will be drastically different,” said Gregory Czarnecki, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ climate change & research coordinator.

Researchers from academia and state government forecast that the state’s ecosystems are set to shift to account for warming temperatures.

Suitable habitats for various tree species are expected to move north and to higher elevations while species like sugar maple, aspen and paper birch along the southern edge of their ranges will die off much faster, according to a Penn State Climate Impact Assessment report.

Northeast Pennsylvania, which is along the southern range of several northern species, may see mortality rates of those trees quickly increase, said Erica Smithwick, professor of geography and director of the Ecology Institute at Penn State.

A 2010 analysis of Scranton’s 1.2 million trees by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found the most common species are red maple, gray birch, black cherry, northern red oak and quaking aspen.

When the forests start to reproduce to replace the dying trees, the ones that will flourish under the warmer climate and shifted rainfall patterns will be southern trees, said Bernie McGurl, executive director of the Lackawanna River Conservation Association.

“The forests are going to change their complexity and complexion,” McGurl said.

Smithwick worries that the mortality rate will, for a time, outpace the rate at which southern species move northward while more invasive species take root.

Climate change leads to an increase in the impact of invasive species, pests and pathogens, DCNR has reported. Among those expected to thrive from climate change in Pennsylvania are sudden oak death, anthracnose, beech bark disease, forest tent caterpillars and the hemlock woolly adelgid.

For example, hemlock woolly adelgid, a tiny insect whose feast on a tree’s starch can cause immense damage over time, is typically constrained during winter, Czarnecki said. However, winters are growing warmer and the pest may have more of a chance to thrive.

“These forests have long been subjected to multiple stressors, including pests, disease, invasive species, over-abundant deer populations, pollution and more,” DCNR said in a 2015 report. “Climate change will exacerbate many of these in addition to adding new stresses. As the U.S. Defense Department said in a recent analysis of the impacts of climate change on national security, climate change is a threat multiplier.”

Meanwhile, invasive species like Japanese stiltgrass, commonly found in Pennsylvania forests, are known to change a forest’s soil composition and reduce its capacity to store carbon, the leading driver of climate change.

The warming climate reduces an ecosystem’s resilience to biological invasions while those exact invasions reduce the ecosystem’s ability to resist the effects of climate change.

McGurl expects the changes to be subtle and over a long period of time. Green will still cover the canopy of Northeast Pennsylvania’s forests.

“I expect it will still be forested,” McGurl said. “But it will be a different kind of forest.”

— JOSEPH KOHUT

Agriculture

Keith Hilliard has been farming for decades and he’s noticed warmer temperatures mean he can keep his crops in the ground longer.

“Personally, I see the difference in the growing season from when I was a lot younger,” he said.

Is that positive for local farmers?

“It is, for now,” he said. “If it gets too extreme it won’t be good, but it’s not anywhere near that now.”

Hilliard farms 330 acres in Sugarloaf Twp. and is the president of the Luzerne County Farm Bureau.

He knows of a farmer whose bean crop was almost a total failure this year because of too much rain, which climate scientists say could be more common during the next 50 years.

On his land, frequent rains lowered hay production.

Too much moisture is already a leading cause of crop loss in the Northeast. It delays planting and reduces the number of days when farmers can work in the fields.

Rain ruined enough crops in Luzerne County and 13 other counties this year that Gov. Tom Wolf declared a disaster, making farmers eligible for relief funding from the federal government.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment said too much rain could spoil some of the benefits that a changing climate is expected to bring to farmers in Pennsylvania and other Northeast states.

A longer growing season will help farmers, but they will have to adapt to changing conditions.

The frequency of heavy rainfall before the last frost of winter has been increasing, and if that trend continues, it could prevent farmers in the region from taking full advantage of an earlier spring.

And as winters get warmer, livestock productivity is expected to increase, but so is the amount of weeds and pests. That will bring a corresponding increase in the demand for pesticides, which brings a greater risk of human health effects.

A 2015 report from Penn State University said there is a high risk that extreme temperatures may reduce yields of grain crops or fruit crops, such as spring wheat, sweet corn and grapes, as summer heat waves become more frequent and intense.

As farmers prepare for the future and the changing arena in their eternal struggle with the elements, crop science will be their ally.

Part of the adaptation will be the new varieties of crops developed by plant scientists that will perform well in the expected conditions.

The state Department of Agriculture is funding research to answer questions about what crops will be feasible in changing growing conditions.

As the climate changes, the state may see conditions that are more hospitable for plants not commonly grown in Pennsylvania. The department is encouraging growers to look at new crops in an effort to diversify their fields as a cushion against future change, said spokeswoman Shannon Powers.

— BILL WELLOCK

Winter recreation

In his 32 years at Elk Mountain Ski Resort near Union Dale, General Manager Gregg Confer has seen almost everything at one time or another.

Cold winters. Warm winters. Wet winters. Dry winters.

The most striking difference these days, he said, is the lack of anything in between.

“Overall, the weather patterns seem to go in extremes anymore,” Confer said. “It’s extremely wet or extremely cold or extremely dry. … It’s been crazy how the weather has changed.”

In the coming decades, probably no industry in Northeast Pennsylvania stands more at risk from climate change than winter recreation, led by commercial downhill skiing at resorts like Elk Mountain and activities that are dependent on natural snow such as snowmobiling and cross-country skiing.

Overall warmer temperatures and increased precipitation that will fall as rain — not snow — mean traditional winter-like conditions will arrive later in the season and depart earlier.

Even in a best-case scenario, according to climate scientists, shortened winters by mid-century if not sooner could make it next to impossible for most Pennsylvania ski resorts to meet a critical benchmark: an operational season of at least 100 days, generally considered necessary for profitability.

Likewise, a later winter onset could delay the season’s start until after the Christmas-New Year’s holiday period, which is a crucial time for revenue generation.

Confer said he realizes — and he thinks everybody else in the industry realizes — that winters locally are warming and an increase in the average temperature of just a degree or so in the next 10 to 20 years would have a huge impact.

“I keep thinking our snowmaking system gets more efficient every year, and it does,” he said. “But we certainly need cold weather to make snow. I don’t ever see that changing. … So it’s certainly a concern for us, but do we put a lot of emphasis on it? We have not yet.”

The recent National Climate Assessment suggests some resorts will adapt by offering a greater range of activities, including warm-weather attractions such as zip lines and disc golf.

Elk Mountain has options for development, even if it has no definite plans, Confer said.

“We do have 1,500 or 1,600 acres of land, and I don’t think the owners bought all that land so they can only use 200 acres of it for a ski resort, so it’s certainly something we would like to do in the future,” he said.

As grim as prospects are for downhill skiing, they are even worse for snowmobiling.

With seasonal snow cover in sharp decline across Pennsylvania since the 1990s, snowmobiling conditions — meaning at least 6 inches of snow on the ground — can already be found for only a few weeks or even a few days on average each winter in most areas of the state.

Most experts expect snowmobiling to virtually disappear from Pennsylvania in the next few decades.

Liz Krug, an Erie area resident who is president of the Pennsylvania State Snowmobile Association, said it doesn’t keep her awake at night, but it is concerning.

Her organization has a number of affiliated clubs in Northeast Pennsylvania, where hundreds of miles of public trails are popular with both local enthusiasts and snowmobilers from New Jersey and New York, she said.

“Yes, you really wonder what the future is going to bring,” Krug said. “It’s very unpredictable now. I don’t know how you plan a week’s vacation to go snowmobiling any more — things just change so quickly. People do it and then they have to cancel out.”

Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said it is a quirk of climate change that, while there will be less snow on the ground each winter, disruptive storms will become more frequent and intense — “like ‘Snowmageddon.’”

“We don’t eliminate winter in Pennsylvania,” she said. “It just may be more rare, and when snowfall happens, it’s more likely to be a big snowfall.”

— DAVID SINGLETON

Infrastructure

The lessons learned seven years ago during Tropical Storm Lee have not been lost on Chris Belleman, executive director of the Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority.

One is that the Wyoming Valley Flood Risk Management Project, the levee and floodwall system that shields Wilkes-Barre and other communities from high-water events on the Susquehanna River, can indeed withstand a flood equal to the calamitous Tropical Storm Agnes flood that devastated the Wyoming Valley in 1972.

But another lesson — and one with sobering implications as climate change portends storms of increasing intensity and frequency in Northeast Pennsylvania — is the disquieting realization that floods greater than Agnes can and will occur.

When the Lee-swollen Susquehanna crested in Wilkes-Barre on Sept. 9, 2011, the water level stood at an unprecedented 42.66 feet, 21 inches higher than the peak during Agnes and uncomfortably close to the top of the 44-foot-high levees.

“I believe the existing flood protection system will serve the valley for a long, long time, but there could be some event in the future where God throws at us perhaps a larger flood even than Lee and in which case the system could be overtopped,” Belleman said. “I hope to God that will not happen.”

Some climate scientists consider the record-setting flooding associated with Tropical Storm Lee a bellwether for what confronts the region and the state as a whole in the coming decades.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment released last month said extreme weather and other climate-related disruptions will only exacerbate existing issues with the Northeast’s already aging infrastructure — not just flood protection assets but things like drainage, sewer systems and bridges.

In Wyoming County, where flash flooding that caused millions of dollars in public infrastructure damage in August was the third major flood event in 12 years, Emergency Management Director Gene Dziak said the time is past due for a serious conversation about climate change from a preparedness standpoint.

“We are going to have to put effort into it, number one, to understand it and, number two, to know what you do about it. I mean, you can’t stop the rain, but what we can do is more planning, and it has to be long-range planning,” he said.

“Climate change is here. We are living it and seeing it in the emergency management world, but yet I don’t think we are reacting to it the way we should.”

The Wyoming Valley system was primarily constructed in the 1940s in response to flooding in 1936, Belleman said. While it has been improved since, most notably during a $200 million, post-Agnes project that added 3 to 5 feet to the levees, he said, “At the end of the day, you still have a 75-year-old system.”

The authority has launched a project to eliminate three no-longer-used openings along the system where it previously had to throw up temporary closure structures during high-water events, Belleman said. Four other openings that in the past were closed with sandbags will be modified to allow them to be sealed with prefabricated gates.

However, there are no plans to further increase the height of the levees, which would require both money and political will, he said.

In what amounted to a litmus test during the Lee flood of 2011, the flood protection system was “exposed to greater stresses than what it was designed for and it performed very well,” Belleman said.

“That’s important to note,” he said. “It’s going on eight years ago now. I have my fingers crossed.”

— DAVID SINGLETON

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