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Breaking news: Extreme weather impacts Hamilton and New York State

By Sustainability Office on April 18, 2014

By Gillian Fisher ’16

It’s safe to say that we have all noticed the crazy weather patterns that have taken Hamilton by storm this winter – literally. At this very moment in mid-April, outside my window, the wind is howling and whipping the mountains of accumulated snow into the air.  This may seem like a typical winter scene, but after a month of this every day, I’m starting to wonder if it will ever get better.

Last winter was my first winter at Colgate, and I honestly didn’t think it was too bad.  Coming from western Massachusetts, I’m used to the never-ending darkness and wearing at least three layers all of the time.  That being said, I was quite unprepared for this winter.  One particular week, where it was below zero every single day, will be ingrained in my memory for a long time.  Although Punxsutawney Phil confirmed that there will be six more weeks of winter, I don’t think this is exactly what people had in mind.

All over the world, various places are experiencing extreme weather events, whether it is heat waves, snow storms, or tons of rain (See our earlier post entitled Willful Ignorance?).  In the United States, especially in the northeast, we have been hearing about the polar vortex, while places in the Southern Hemisphere such as Brazil and Australia have experienced record high temperatures.  But are these extreme temperatures just coincidence?  According to Omar Baddour, chief of the data division at the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization (WMO), these huge storms have been directly connected to an increase in global warming.  Additionally, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is considered to be a global authority on all things climate change, recently released a new report backing up all evidence that global warming is leading to extreme weather events such as heat waves and increasingly harmful rain storms.

It has also become evident this winter that the Arctic is warming up at an unusually fast rate; there is not nearly as much ice as there has been at this time in past years.  Global warming means no ice and no ice means more global warming.  This is obviously quite concerning.  As the polar ice caps melt, sea levels will rise.  Predictions vary, but many scientists believe that global sea levels will increase by somewhere around two to three feet over the course of the next century.  In addition, there are further predictions that our East Coast sea levels will increase much more than that, particularly affecting the island of Manhattan.

In New York State, we know that temperatures and precipitation levels will continue to be altered by climate change.  One group of researchers predicts that temperatures across the state will increase by up to 9 degrees Fahrenheit by the 2080s.  They also predict that the average precipitation per year will increase by up to 15 percent by the same time (Rosenzweig et al. 2011).  These changes would drastically affect our everyday lives here at Colgate.

In Hamilton, we will need to adapt to and be ready for increasingly harsh winters and possibly warmer summers.  During the winter, this might include more university staff dedicated to shoveling pathways and putting down salt on the ice.  Personally, I know that I will need heavier boots to trek through all of the snow in the coming years.  In the summer, on the other hand, Colgate might need to invest in better infrastructure to deal with flooding.  The university might also need to install air conditioning systems into all dorms and academic buildings to accommodate warmer temperatures during the late spring and early fall.

These new adaptive measures will definitely be costly for Colgate and for all New York State residents.  This is why it is important to keep focusing on mitigation strategies, as well.  In other words, we need to implement programs and policies that will stop or slow global warming in addition to adapting to it.  Mitigation is part of the bigger picture.  Until there is a global consensus that climate change is real and dangerous for humans and the earth, it will be difficult to make these mitigation strategies universal.

However, the extreme weather events that have occurred this winter in Hamilton are tangible evidence of the impending effects of climate change.  Before we can make significant improvements at the state and then federal and then global levels, we will need to work within our own small community to implement strategies for both adaptation and mitigation.  We are able to see first-hand at Colgate how climate change can alter our weather patterns.  Therefore, by recognizing that global warming will only continue to worsen and by starting efforts to do something about it, we can continue to move in the right direction towards new universal standards on eliminating the threat of climate change.

What are your thoughts on climate change?  Has your hometown experienced recent extreme weather events?

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