Courtesy of the Ithaca Voice

Temperatures that reached into the 90s and severe thunderstorms that continue to slam Ithaca may be indicative of summers to come, experts say.

July 8, 2021

Record-Breaking Heat Is a Sign of Years to Come, Local Experts Say

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Temperatures that reached into the 90s and severe thunderstorms that continue to slam Ithaca may be indicative of summers to come, experts say. 

After a deadly heat wave engulfed the Pacific Northwest and after the hottest June on record for North America, many across the country have been left wondering if elevated temperatures experienced elsewhere are part of the same pattern. 

While local experts say the recent area heat advisories aren’t out of the ordinary for Ithaca summers, hotter days and nights are becoming more frequent because of climate change.   

“These types of heat events are exactly what we fear will happen more often under climate change,” Prof. Natalie Mahowald, earth and atmospheric sciences, said in an email to The Sun.  “Although we can’t say an event is specifically caused by climate change, we can say that heat events are likely to occur more often under climate change or that the odds of having such an event occurring increase.”  

Prof. Mark Wysocki, earth and atmospheric sciences, said that from a historical perspective, last week’s hotter Ithaca weather isn’t unusual, though he said an unusually warm moist air mass is more typical in July and August. 

“What might be happening in our small little community is not necessarily what’s happening globally,” Wysocki said. “Yes, the heat is going up. We’re seeing it a little bit here in Ithaca, but not to the experience we see in other areas.”

Still, Ithaca and other areas across upstate New York have felt this slight increase in temperatures and the thunderstorms that rain down with the heat. 

“When you get temperatures that are so hot and an atmosphere that’s so humid, it has moisture. Those are pretty much the two ingredients that you need for thunderstorms,” said Prof. Arthur DeGaetano, earth and atmospheric sciences. “In the weather pattern we’re in, it’s not surprising that we’re getting these thunderstorms.”   

A supervisor at Alex Haley Pool said last week that the pool was busier than usual, packed with residents trying to beat the heat and especially crowded because the Cass Park Pool hadn’t opened yet. At Camp Coddington, an outdoor summer camp, campers sheltered under pavilions during thunderstorms last week as the storms passed in the afternoons, said Heather Mount, executive director at Coddington Road Community Center.    

Since then, afternoon storms have wreaked havoc on Ithaca summer. Severe thunderstorms caused temporary power outages last week. The Downtown Ithaca Alliance canceled the first downtown Summer Concert Series of the season on Thursday because of rain and lighting forecasts, and heavy storms that uprooted and toppled trees in Stewart Park postponed the park’s July Fourth birthday bash.     

But beyond the daytime weather, DeGaetano said recent nighttime temperatures in the broader region have been more unusual, with the heat lingering overnight — which can be deadly. This unusual nighttime heat is part of a global trend fueled by climate change, as on average, nights warm faster than days across the country.     

“Not Ithaca, but many places in the Northeast, including Syracuse and Rochester, basically tied their record for the warmest minimum temperature in June — in other words, how cold it doesn’t get at night,” DeGaetano said.

Earlier last week, Syracuse experienced one of its hottest June nights ever recorded, giving people, and their housing, little chance to cool off. 

DeGaetano has lived in Ithaca for 30 years without an air conditioner and never thought he needed one — until recent years. With hotter days becoming more frequent, DeGaetano said he worries about communities where air conditioning isn’t the norm, including in upstate New York, leaving populations vulnerable to the heat. 

He added that though Ithaca may not be facing the brunt of hotter temperatures, the heat also threatens crops and livestock in rural areas. DeGaetano said dairy milk production drops with unusually hot days, for example, affecting dairy farms in the region.  

“Twenty years from now, your kids won’t be asking if this is uncommon,” DeGaetano said. “This is what they will expect in summer.”

This story was originally published by The Ithaca Voice as a part of The Cornell Daily Sun Ithaca News Fellowship.