Claire Li/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

As the effects of climate change persist, the City of Ithaca faces decisions about responses to fluctuating weather patterns.

September 21, 2023

Ithaca Responds to Climate Change, Increasingly Variable Weather

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Although Ithaca is known for its fluctuating weather patterns, climate change has further increased this variability, forcing the city to adapt to new challenges.

The first week of September brought a heat wave to much of the northeastern United States, including Ithaca. Several months earlier, in July, severe thunderstorms struck the city, damaging power lines, flooding streets and downing trees. Events like these have long been attributed to Ithaca’s naturally variable weather, but climate change is making them more frequent and severe. 

“We are seeing more often things like where your house or your street gets flooded, and we’re starting to get to a point where summer heat-related illness is a more common thing to face, or you can’t do things you would normally do in the summer because it’s too hot to be outside,” local advocate Katie Sims ’20 said.

The frequency of natural disasters in Ithaca is projected to rise, according to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. Ithaca and surrounding regions are expected to face about six to seven heavy rain events and three to six heat waves per year in the 2050s. 

These rain events are projected to wreak havoc on the region as the progression of climate change intensifies. Excessive rainfall is expected to be the most dangerous impact of climate change for Tompkins County and one that is an existential threat to communities in flood-prone regions.

“In a lot of cases, things are built in floodplains and they’ve survived there for years, but as rainfall becomes more intense and the chance of flooding becomes more frequent, that kind of wisdom of ‘it’s nice to be right along the river or right along the stream’ is called into question,” said Prof. Arthur DeGaetano, earth and atmospheric sciences.

DeGaetano said that rebuilding after such disasters is likely going to be a factor in determining whether living on floodplains will be economically feasible in the long term.

While the damage to properties and homes is difficult to address in flooding events, innovations like the implementation of a low-power wide-area network — a technology that connects devices that transmit small volumes of data — aim to decrease the threat to public safety that storms and flooding produces, particularly in rural regions with less widespread internet connectivity.

“We are working on a low cost, low bandwidth network where instead of relying on cellular, we are relying on radio,” said Prof. K. Max Zhang, mechanical engineering, who is a designer on the project.  “You cannot transmit a lot of data, but at the same time, for a lot of emergency related services, you do not need to transmit a lot of data.” 

Zhang explained that the low cost technology can be used to give advance warning to residents of rural areas in cases of emergency situations. By enabling more widespread alert systems, the LPWAN would allow people to potentially escape the life-threatening conditions brought on by storms and flooding.

Although rainfall presents danger both to infrastructure and human life, the increased variability in temperature also is a source of concern for the region. The apple crop, an agricultural and cultural staple in Ithaca and surrounding upstate regions, faces an uncertain future due to its sensitivity to frost and variable spring temperatures. 

“In a perfect world, it’s cold through the winter, [and] it’s cold through March. The apples don’t start to develop until late April or May, where the chance of getting a below freezing temperature is very small,” DeGaetano said. “But now, they develop so much quicker in late winter and early spring that they’re ready to bloom at a time of year that there still is a high probability of having a frost.”

The impacts on the apple crop are particularly apparent this year. As a result of high temperature variability in the winter and early spring, Indian Creek Farm, a local orchard, lost 90 percent of its apple crop, according to their newsletter.

The impacts of this increased temperature variability are not limited to agriculture. Extreme heat and heat-related illness disproportionately impact marginalized groups with less access to or utilization of resources like air conditioning units.

A major aspect of Ithaca’s policy response to the effects of climate change is identifying and supplying resources for these marginalized groups, labeled climate justice communities. Ithaca’s Justice 50 initiative promises that 50 percent of the benefits of the Ithaca Green New Deal go towards these climate justice communities. However, activists criticize the gap between city commitments and measurable achievements in climate justice.

“The issue with Justice 50 is that right now the city has not developed a clear plan to implement it anytime soon — if Justice 50 is implemented and is as equitable as it is planned to be, then I think that will do a lot to direct a lot of resources towards climate justice communities,” said Ace Dufresne, leader of the Ithaca Sunrise Movement.

As Ithaca moves on from a summer of variable weather, the city with a historic commitment to sustainability is reminded of the inevitability of climate change’s impact and disruption at a local level.

“I think Ithaca in general is privileged in terms of the way that it has been affected by climate change so far,” Dufresne said. “We saw this year that it finally reached us, and I feel like a lot of people started to understand that this isn’t really a future issue.”

Kate Sanders ’27 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].