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Is New York's extreme weather 'unprecedented'? A SUNY-ESF expert says yes

 A smoke filled sky in Syracuse in June
Ava Pukatch
A smoke filled sky in Syracuse in June

At several press conferences over the past few months, Gov. Kathy Hochul has used the term "unprecedented" for describing weather events like the massive snow in Buffalo, unhealthy air quality from Canadian wildfires and most recently, flash flooding.

"These are unprecedented weather events that keep hitting us over and over and over again," The Governor said during a July 10 briefing on flooding in the Hudson Valley.

Are they actually "unprecedented" and is this our new normal?

Andrew Vander Yacht, who leads the Applied Forest and Ecology Lab at SUNY-ESF, said all indication and records show these are unprecedented events and that climate change is real. He said most climatic variables can be painted as a normal distribution curve, with a lot of observations round an average and fewer observations on either end of those extremes.

"A lot of people think about climate change as a shift in where that peak is of the average," Vander Yacht said. "When people toss around an increase of 1.6 degrees Celsius across the globe from pre-industrial times, that's not very scary, right? That's just a shift in that distribution."

But Vander Yacht said what's happening with climate change is not just a shift of the mean, but an almost flattening of the curve altogether. This depresses the normal distribution, creating more variation around the average and a greater frequency of extreme events.

"We have events that are occurring, that are novel, that have never occurred, that are outside of that normal distribution that we have within our historical records of climate," Vander Yacht said.

Vander Yacht said what makes him nervous with the trends of the Canadian wildfires on the Northeast is the biodiversity of the East Coast differs from the West Coast species. He said this has led the compositions of our forests to favor fire sensitive and disturbance intolerant species.

"Those trends are going to collide with future predicted increases in fire," Vander Yacht said. "We have fire sensitive forests colliding with an increases in future wildfire activity and that's a recipe for ecological disaster, severe degradation of those forested systems."

These unprecedented events are almost like a type pf whiplash for forest ecosystems. Vander Yacht said that variability can make it hard for a species to really find its niche.

He said species like the sugar maple and oak trees illustrate two sides of a coin saying conditions and frequency of droughts will likely not favor the growth of sugar maple, expecting to see a dominance of oaks in the region.

Vander Yacht explains while there is hope in forest management to increase forest resiliency, a key issue is the rate of change is outpacing the rate people can respond to those changes.

"Forest have a really difficult time keeping up with the extreme variability that we're creating in our climate," Vander Yacht said. "The amount of energy that we are putting into our atmosphere and our oceans and all of the subsequent impacts that's having on climate variability is making it really difficult for our tree species and wildlife to keep up."

Ava Pukatch joined the WRVO news team in September 2022. She previously reported for WCHL in Chapel Hill, NC and earned a degree in Journalism and Media from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, Ava was a Stembler Scholar and a reporter and producer for the award-winning UNC Hussman broadcast Carolina Connection. In her free time, Ava enjoys theatre, coffee and cheering on Tar Heel sports. Find her on Twitter @apukatch.