January 25, 2007

Global Warming May Affect Local Economy

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When the renowned French Romantic Victor Hugo said, “Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart,” it is doubtful that his metaphorical seasons referred even loosely to the weather patterns of 19th century Europe. However, after a December in which the typical snow-filled Northeastern winter was replaced with temperatures lingering in the 60s and 70s, Hugo’s “eternal spring” assumes new meaning.

This year’s unusually mild December had cultural and economic implications for the Ithaca community that spanned well beyond convenience — it eliminated the need for students to trek treacherously through the snow to get to class, anti-freeze and intensive upper-body workouts trying to remove the sheet of ice from car windshields.

“As much as they are somewhat torturous and uncomfortable, at the end of last semester, I was missing the typical Ithaca weather,” said Elana Beale ’08. “The lack of sun and icy sidewalks became part of my Cornell experience.”

Cathy Vreeland, a climatologist from Cornell’s Northeast Regional Climate Center, said the combination of El Niño and a North Atlantic Oscillation caused such abnormal temperatures. A NAO influences the winds and storms that reach areas considered part of the North Atlantic region: central North America, Europe and Northern Asia. The NAO cycles are approximately one year long, and, as this year was a “positive” cycle, the NAO diverted much of the arctic air from reaching the United States. Now that the oscillation has shifted, however, Ithaca is experiencing “more of a typical winter” as the cold air reaches our region, Vreeland said.

Although the Climate Center does not make predictions, Vreeland acknowledged a global trend of increasing temperatures.

“I would have to assume that the local temperature will increase over time as well,” she said.

Vreeland claims the way this will permanently affect the Ithaca area is “a big unknown.”

“We don’t know how subtle the change will be, and so many of our local businesses, in particular agriculture, are seasonal,” she said.

The record-high temperatures affected various local industries ranging from retail sales and agricultural produce to outdoor recreation. Greek Peak, a popular skiing destination located about 30 miles from downtown Ithaca, can attribute their slow start of the season to the weather conditions.

“We opened on time, but then had to close down,” said Al Kryger, president of Greek Peak Resort. “We are down 30 to 40 percent in revenue from last year, and had to lose about 200 employees,” he said.

Greek Peak typically gets about 20,000 skiers during the holiday season, and this year only attracted between 4,000 and 5,000. Although Kryger hopes that the recent change in weather will prolong the winter skiing season, he talked about the difficulty that will ensue in making up for the funds lost during November and December.

“Operating costs increase when we have to stay open longer,” he said, “but we are hoping the season will last long, and that customers will continue to ski and take lessons through March.”

Other businesses, however, benefited from the abnormal weather pattern. Dean Spencer, full-time salesman at Benjamin Peters, a men’s clothing store in the Commons, felt the warm weather encouraged people to go outside and shop.
“We had an outstanding season,” he said. “People chose to come to the Commons, and we certainly experienced an increase in the amount of customer flow through our store.” Although he admitted that the sale of some clothing items, like outerwear, “didn’t take off until after the holiday,” he said that the sale of such articles like scarves and hats has been “more dramatic than usual” in the recent weeks.

Additionally, Peters noticed that the warm weather had positive affects on members of Ithaca’s population.

“The pleasant weather contributed to widespread optimism throughout the community,” he said. “This holiday season, there was increased holiday cheer as more people — especially the elderly and entire families — seemed to walk the commons.”

The atypical December also positively impacted Ithaca’s booming wine industry. Although the warm temperatures hindered the grapes’ yearly cycle of hardening and preparing for the winter months, the gradual cooling of the atmosphere enabled them to successfully do so at a later time.

“It didn’t get warm enough for the grapes to break their period of full dormancy. Because the temperature changed gradually, the grapes should be in good shape for this spring,” said Eric Russo of Ithaca’s Six Mile Creek Winery.

Russo added that from the winery’s business side, the warm weather was great.

“More customers came to visit than usual for that time of the year,” he said. “People wanted to be outside, it was fantastic for business.”