116 years of Mohonk weather records show strong warming trend

Shanan Smiley, Conservation Biologist/Collections Manager at the Mohonk Preserve’s Daniel Smiley Research Center, tells the local story of climate change last week in the College Lounge at SUNY Ulster. ( Lauren Thomas)

Folks on both sides of the global warming debate have been known to accuse one another of “junk science” — of crunching some numbers in ways that support their arguments while ignoring others. But here in the mid-Hudson, we are privileged to have as a neighbor an entity that collects climate data in a manner so painstaking and hands-on and consistent that it can withstand any challenge to its validity. And it has been doing that the same way for 116 years now. So the conclusions that can be drawn from those data probably ought not to be ignored.
That entity is, of course, the Mohonk Preserve’s Daniel Smiley Research Center, which was established at the behest of the federal government as a cooperative weather station in 1896 and has not missed a year of gathering data ever since. On Thursday, April 26, Shanan Smiley, conservation biologist and collections manager at the Center, gave a public presentation at SUNY-Ulster in which she summarized what her team has discovered in recent years, and how that information compares with the data collected at the same sites over the past century-plus. The verdict: Whatever the cause, the climate on the Shawangunk Ridge is certainly changing for the warmer, and it’s having significant effects on the ecosystem’s vegetation and wildlife.
Although she grew up out West, starting her career in places like Montana’s Glacier National Park and Utah’s Dixie National Forest, Shanan took on the Smiley family tradition after marrying a grandson of Dan Smiley. Dan himself started recording bird arrival data at Mohonk at the age of 18, in 1925, and 12 years later took on the task of logging weather data. He carried on for another five decades, until his death in 1989. In the interim the Mohonk Mountain House had spun off the Mohonk Trust, now called the Mohonk Preserve, as a not-for-profit entity whose mission was land preservation and scientific observation. “The Preserve really took over Dan’s passion for research and record-keeping,” said Shanan.
The remarkable thing is that, even in these high-tech times, the Research Center continues to conduct and log that research the same ways and in the same places that it always did, so that anyone analyzing the data is always comparing apples with apples. “We have decided not to digitize, and to record everything by hand each day,” said the young Smiley scion. She pointed out that weather stations that use mechanized instruments have gaps in their records for days when the power goes down: a real concern in a fairly remote place subject to extreme weather events like the crest of the Shawangunk Ridge.
So how does the last decade stack up against the preceding century in the Gunks? Hotter and wetter by far, according to Smiley. From 1896 to 2011, the average temperature increased 2.99 degrees, with the most marked difference since 1998. The measuring site has seen five of the ten warmest Aprils in the last decade, six of the ten warmest Junes since 1999, seven of the ten warmest Julys since 1999 and five of the ten warmest Augusts since 1998. Of the years with the most days topping out over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, seven of the top ten have occurred since 1998. Since 2000 there have been four years with no days at all falling below zero degrees Fahrenheit, which was once almost unheard-of in these parts. Clearly, something’s going on here.
Though winters may seem less snowy in the past decade than most cross-country skiers would like, overall precipitation has increased significantly as well: by 7.8 inches from 1896 to 2011. Last year had the most rainfall on record: 79.31 inches total.
Other ways of measuring the changes include lake ice, which the Smileys began recording in 1932. The date when Lake Mohonk becomes completely frozen over occurs 19 days later in the year now than it did 80 years ago, on average, and the duration of the Lake being iced over now averages 27 days shorter. Fall foliage color also reflects climate change: Remember when Columbus Day weekend was regarded as the peak of leaf-peeper season? That used to be Dan Smiley’s parameter, but these days fall color peaks a week later on average.
The growing season in the area is now ten days longer than in 1896, with the last frost occurring earlier in the spring, which of course affects what plant species can and can’t grow here. Wildflowers and shrubs are blooming noticeably earlier, said Shanan Smiley, citing hepatica as one species that now flowers a full 20 days earlier than it used to.
Animal behavior also reflects these changes: Black flies, unfortunately for hikers, now emerge 11 days earlier. Amphibians come out of hibernation sooner: the spring peeper by nine days, the wood frog by two weeks, the gray tree frog by three weeks and the Jefferson salamander by a whopping 23 days.
Migrating birds are arriving earlier, too, by as much as 27 days for the chipping sparrow and Northern flicker. Birds that used to head south for the winter, such as the American robin, song sparrow and black and turkey vultures, have now become year-round residents. In fact, the black vulture is a relatively new species to this area, as are the common raven, fish crow and red-bellied woodpecker.
While such species move in from the South, others that used to like our climate are now seeking cooler weather further north, like the evening grosbeak and the Acadian flycatcher. The latter depends on Canadian hemlocks for its habitat, and in the Gunks those stately trees are succumbing to the depredations of another Southern migrant: the wooly adelgid. Humans, it seems, can live for a long time in a state of denial, but critters can’t.
Plans for future research directions for the Smiley Research Center, according to Shanan, include comparative studies of spring emergence times for reptiles and the spread of non-native invasive species. She will be giving similar presentations in the area in the future, but in the meantime, teachers and others who would like to share this information with their students can obtain access to a slideshow on CD-ROM. To borrow a copy, e-mail her at ssmiley@mohonkpreserve.org. ++

There is one comment

  1. Jane

    Wow, probally just nature, Earth Is 4 Billion years old, it warms and cools, no Big deal. How was the Weather 500 years ago?

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