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5 ways climate has changed on Long Island and beyond

Melville on the evening of Aug. 27.

Melville on the evening of Aug. 27. Credit: Edward B. Colby

Much of the conversation around climate change focuses on the future — but you might be surprised to learn what's happened already.

Here's a look at changes we've seen on and around Long Island, New York State and the broader Northeast.

YES, IT'S WARMER AND WILL GET HOTTER

This isn't your grandfather's Long Island — or your mother's. The average temperature has been trending up.

Both Nassau and Suffolk counties experienced a warming trend of 3.3 degrees per 100 years over the time period of 1895-2018, NOAA's data show.

That's compared to the average annual temperature for the 20th century in both places as a baseline.

Temperatures are projected to keep climbing on the Island, and more severely under a higher emissions scenario, according to the New York Climate Change Science Clearinghouse.

The Department of Environmental Conservation's climate policy analyst, Mark Lowery, points to something else to look for: "the increase in frequency and severity of extreme events." Specifically, more extremely hot days and heat waves.

The state-funded ClimAID study "projects that by mid-century, New York City and Long Island will experience 32 to 57 days over 90⁰F per year, compared to an average 18 such days per year during the 1971-2000 baseline period," Lowery said in an email via a DEC spokeswoman. "The number of heat waves is expected to increase to 4 to 7 per year, compared to an average of two per year during the baseline."

SHIFTING SEASONS

The Northeast's seasons are becoming less distinct, with milder winters and spring arriving earlier, according to the federal government's 2018 National Climate Assessment.

The frost-free season, or growing season, was 10 days longer in the region over the 1986-2015 period compared to 1901-1960, Lowery noted, citing that report.

"The lengthening growing season obviously has some advantages, but it also provides more time for insect pests and weeds to proliferate, as well as disease vectors like mosquitoes," Lowery said. "It can also disrupt the synchrony between dates of arrival of migratory nesting birds and availability of insects on which they depend for food."

Meantime, "winters have warmed three times faster than summers" recently in the Northeast, the National Climate Assessment said.

MORE INTENSE RAIN EVENTS

If you've noticed this change from your younger days, you're not alone.

Lowery highlighted how "the proportion of annual rainfall in the Northeast that comes in the heaviest one percent of events has increased by more than 70% since the 1950s," according to the National Climate Assessment.

And 2-inch rainfall events in New York and New England have become more frequent since that decade, he said, citing the Northeast Regional Climate Center.

“The recent dominant trend in precipitation throughout the Northeast has been towards increases in rainfall intensity," with those increases greater than in other regions of the Lower 48 states, the climate report said.

And the rain's expected to get even more intense — with more "total precipitation expected during the winter and spring but with little change in the summer."

In 2019, we've had only one day of 2 inches or more of rain at Long Island MacArthur Airport — Oct. 16, with 2.18 inches.

July 23 came close, with 1.85 inches of rain there — which followed 0.53 inches recorded on July 22.

THE SEA RISES MORE HERE

The sea level has risen significantly more on New York's coast since 1880 (about 13 inches) than it has globally (8 inches), according to NOAA's climate summary for the Empire State.

Lowery explained that the land mass is sinking because of "glacial isostatic adjustment," a phenomenon tied to the last ice age, and "faster warming of local water."

"The New York City Panel on Climate Change estimates that the approximately one foot of sea-level rise since 1900 expanded the area flooded by Sandy in New York City by approximately 25 square miles," he said. "The additional flooding attributable to sea-level rise flooded the homes of an additional 80,000 people in New York and New Jersey."

CHANGES TO MARINE LIFE

How have fisheries in Long Island Sound been affected by climate change?

The group of species there has changed, with a tendency for more warm water species and less cold water ones, said Janet Nye, an associate professor in the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, in an email.

"We see similar changes in nearby estuaries like Narragansett Bay, Peconic Bay and the coastal ocean that suggest the changes in LIS are not just a 'one off' but rather a coastwide change in the mix of species that we see in NY waters," Nye wrote. "This doesn't mean that cold water species are totally gone and replaced by warm water species, but the cold water species are less abundant and warm water species are more abundant and this has happened somewhat gradually so you may not have noticed!"

Black sea bass, butterfish and scup are warm water species that have become more abundant in Long Island Sound, according to a 2012 paper by Penelope Howell and Peter J. Auster which compared them between the periods of 1984-1998 and 1999-2008. Meanwhile, the cold water species Atlantic herring, windowpane and winter flounder became less abundant in the Sound, the paper showed.

"Black sea bass is the star of the show," said Howell, who has since retired from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Before the 1990s that species was a rarity in the Sound, she said. "Now they're all over the place."

A profound geographic shift has taken place.

The mix of species seen in New York waters "looks less like what it did in the 1960-70s and more like the species mix you would have found off the coast just south of us in North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland," Nye said.

She emphasized "that fishing is a much stronger driver of fish populations than climate."

Fishery collapses "are often cases where overfishing and other stressors are accompanied by poor climate conditions," Nye said. "The crash of American lobster in LIS is the result of overfishing, followed by a warm event that caused high mortality that the already depressed population couldn't withstand."

Since then, most of the waters that lobsters used to thrive in are consistently too warm for them to recover, she said.

As Howell put it, "Lobsters are the poster child for animals that do not migrate and are very, very temperature sensitive — and heavily harvested."

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