If local governments feel unaffected by climate change in Pennsylvania, that feeling might not last for long — and if they feel like there’s nothing they can do, there is.
A forum Wednesday night at Dickinson College, organized by the Cumberland Conservation Collaborative, detailed the direct effects of recent warming trends in the area, and some of the angles local leaders may have to address them.
“If the ship is going in the wrong direction, we have to get on the ship and re-right it,” said Dr. Peter Buckland, who has led the charge in Centre County for several of the municipalities around State College to enact emissions-reduction plans.
Pennsylvania is experiencing a warming climate, and in a very specific way, according to data presented by John Balay of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission and Matt Steinbugl of the National Weather Service.
Dickinson College and Rare, a global advocate in the use of behavior changes to address conservation issues, came together Saturday for a national summit on ways colleges and universities can take action against climate change.
Average temperatures in Pennsylvania are up 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. This warming has been lopsided toward the winter, Steinbugl said: The winter months have warmed 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas other seasons have warmed between one and 1.5 degrees.
The most recent five-year survey period, 2010-14, also provided an historic record in the frequency of warm nights in the state, Steinbugl said. Warm nights are defined as nights where the temperature did not get below 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
A hotter climate, skewed toward warm winters and nights that don’t cool off, has been felt mostly in precipitation.
Balay described a “significant increasing trend in stream flow levels” since 1970 in the Susquehanna and its tributaries. Those periods of major washouts have clustered in the fall, but climate modeling projects them moving more into the winter as Pennsylvania continues to warm.
Last year was the wettest year in Pennsylvania’s known history, according to NOAA and NWS data. All of Pennsylvania’s snowfall records were set in the last 30 years, Steinbugl said, a somewhat counter-intuitive idea, that extreme snows will become more common as average temperatures climb.
“It doesn’t have to be brutally cold for there to be heavy snow — in fact, it’s often borderline when we see our heaviest snowstorms,” Stienbugl said. “Usually these events are occurring right around freezing, in the upper 20s and low 30s.”
As Pennsylvania sees more extreme snow and rain, the permanence of its snows has drastically decreased.
The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is particularly concerned about this, DCNR researcher Greg Czarnecki said. State parks that were once skiing destinations are getting massive snowfalls, but they’re gone within a week, Czarnecki said. The area of Pennsylvania that experiences a persistent snowfall, meaning at least inch of snow that stays for at least 30 days, has shrunk rapidly and is projected to continue to do so, according to DCNR maps.
Flooding has most heavily impacted state parks on Lake Erie, where docks and piers were persistently underwater this year. The NWS estimated this spring that Lake Erie was three inches above its previous high water level from 1986.
More locally, Czarnecki said the DCNR is working with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to possibly shift sections of trail that persistently wash out. One location in Caledonia State Park has had trail-destroying washouts five times.
But possibly the most alarming effect is the near-tripling of Pennsylvania’s Lyme disease rate over the past decade, according to state Department of Health data.
“There’s a direct tie between an increase in Lyme disease and climate change,” Czarnecki said, adding that the illness has become the DCNR’s No. 1 workman’s compensation claim.
“I’ve had it twice and I don’t even get out in the field that much,” Czarnecki said.
Hotter, wetter climates are also more conducive to mosquitoes, with 2018’s particularly steamy summer producing a jump in West Nile virus cases to 130 human positives, versus 20 in 2017.
The highly weather-dependent nature of insect-borne viruses is worrying given that temperature increases have seen new species move into Pennsylvania, including the Asian tiger mosquito, which feeds during the height of day, Czarnecki said.
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It’s not just insects. Black cherry trees are rapidly receding from the state, as are black-cap chickadees, which are being replaced by the Carolina chickadee. Kudzu vines, an invasive species typically associated with the deep South, are now reproducing in Pennsylvania, Czarnecki said.
“We have to recognize that new things are moving in and our things may be moving out,” Czarnecki said.
The DCNR is considering what will need to be planted that will survive the next several decades of warming. It’s also working to preserve ridgeline and riparian buffer habitats, which are typically the connecting routes for plant and animal habitats.
More visibly, draining culverts and other infrastructure at state parks are being replaced to better deal with flooding. Some parks are also having to shift their offerings, as skiing becomes less of a viable attraction.
Municipalities can try the same strategies to adapt to a warmer climate. But when it comes to mitigating the arc of climate change, there are also some things to be done.
Most of this centers around municipalities using their buying power, and possibly their zoning power, to encourage the development of renewable energy and mitigate their use of fossil fuels, Buckland said.
Buckland is the chair of a working group to develop the Centre Region Solar Power Purchase Agreement, in which the municipalities in the State College area are banding together to buy a large amount of solar-derived energy for their communities.
Local governments can also attempt to use zoning by requiring certain energy standards for buildings and incentivizing developers to install solar as part of their projects in exchange for certain zoning allowances, Buckland said.
Last year, Pennsylvania also created the Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy Program, in which counties and municipalities can allow property owners to finance clean energy improvements to their buildings with loans that are repaid through the property’s future tax revenue.
“The county can adopt it and work with the municipalities for a clean energy district,” Buckland said, where property taxes can be leveraged for energy-efficiency redevelopment, including the installation of solar panels.
Using municipal government to push for solar power is already partly underway in Carlisle, where the borough has discussed using vacant land it owns adjacent to the municipal water and wastewater plants for a solar farm.
“We have some land out by the sewer plant that would be conducive to having solar panels out there and generating some if not all of the power the plant consumes,” Carlisle Deputy Mayor Sean Schultz said this week.
The borough recently signed an agreement with its power provider that got it out from under a previous contract provision that prevented the borough from generating its own power, opening the door for the borough to look into a solar deal, Schultz said.
But more transformational change will have to come from higher up. Pennsylvania is the nation’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, mainly because it’s the nation’s second-largest electricity exporter.
The state provides much of the power for the entire Northeastern United States, and also pumps out the carbon-based gases from coal- and natural gas-fired power plants. Gov. Tom Wolf has announced he intends to place Pennsylvania in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade arrangement on carbon output whose implementation will likely be fought over in the state Legislature.
At almost 40%, Pennsylvania’s energy sector is its largest emitter of carbon dioxide, according to government figures.
Buckland encouraged participants at Wednesday’s session to get involved, even run for office at the state and local level. But one important thing they can do is also talk openly about the issue, something Buckland said psychological studies have shown people are more interested in doing than they believe others to be.
“Most people actually want to talk about climate change. They’re afraid that they don’t know enough or that someone is going to get mad at them,” Buckland said. “I think one of the best things that every person can do … is to have a conversation about climate change that has nothing to do with who is in the White House or whatever.”