February 11, 2016

C.U. Climate Experts Prepare for Unseasonable Winter

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Because unseasonably warm winters in the Northeast will become more common, Cornell’s Institute for Climate Change is creating farming weather technology that could prevent crop devastation, according to University climate change experts.

This winter is the fourth warmest since 1894, with average temperatures in Ithaca over seven degrees higher than normal, according to Jessica Spaccio, a climatologist at the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science.

Scientists have attributed the warm temperatures to El Niño, a weather pattern that typically occurs every four to six years. However, they are uncertain whether the frequency or intensity of the phenomenon will increase due to climate change, according to Prof. David Wolfe, horticulture.

“We can count on a continuation of the trend for warmer winters due to climate change as long as our use of fossil fuels continues,” Wolfe said. “El Niño is a natural cycle that we have little control over, but as a society, moving away from carbon-based fuels and toward renewable energy sources will be key to slowing the pace of climate change.”

According to Dr. Allison Chatrchyan, director of the Institute for Climate Change, warmer weather like this one is “an example of what we will see in the future.”

Warm winters cause the biggest problem for the fruit and vegetable growers because bulbs bloom in midwinter and cold snaps in the spring can be incredibly damaging for crops,according to Chatrchyan.

Chatrchyan cited 2012 as a year in which an extreme weather change had a detrimental effect on crops.

“Late in the spring, there was a very cold freeze,” Chatrchyan said. “Plants had already [bloomed, causing] millions of dollars of loss to the apple crops.”

She predicts that due to climate change, winters like this will become more typical.

The Climate Institute is developing technologies to help farmers mitigate the damage that increasingly frequent late season freezes may cause in the future, according to Chatrchyan.

“Right now, we’re developing a freeze risk tool for grapes and apples, which will give a projected forecast for the next couple days,” Chatrchyan said. “If there is a potential freeze, [the tool] will give a warning, and farmers can put in place practices to try to prevent loss or damage if they know that’s a risk.”

Emma Johnston ’16, Student Assembly Vice President and a member of the Cornell Environmental Collaborative, said the Cornell community can also participate in efforts to reduce the effects of climate change.

“We can start by trusting our pretty renowned atmospheric sciences department, [which is] doing research on climate change on its effects on atmospheric cycles,” Johnston said. “We can do more research on the best ways to communicate to the public about the science of climate change and El Niño, which are not always the easiest things to understand.”