field in Finger Lakes
Image by Guillermo Metz

Climate change is already affecting local area farmers.

Climate Change & the Finger Lakes

September 21, 2020

Welcome to Climate Week. Of course, every week is climate week with the Energy & Climate Change Team at CCE-Tompkins. We strive to give you the information and tools you need to take personal steps to help address the climate crisis.

And this week, while wildfires rage in the west, creating the world’s worst air quality and endangering people, property, and wildlife, and massive glaciers in both Greenland and Antarctica reach what some are calling irreversible tipping points, we start by taking a look at how climate change is affecting us right here, in the Finger Lakes Region.

Maybe not as dramatically as those other examples, but we’ve been seeing clear changes in our local climate for over a decade. Foremost are more frequent severe storms alongside prolonged periods of drought. In addition to the chaos this causes farmers, which I’ll get into more later, this combination has led to serious erosion issues along miles of streams that feed the Finger Lakes. Just take a look along Six Mile Creek or in Buttermilk Falls or Treman State Parks for signs of massive stream bank erosion. Local municipalities have been having to spend increasing amounts to try to stabilize those stream banks and repair the damage.

More severe storms have also led to increased levels of sediment and nutrients being washed into the lakes, which, in addition to warmer lake temperatures, is a leading theory for the occurrence of HABs, or harmful algal blooms. Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria (they’re not really algae, but bacteria that can photosynthesize), can be particularly harmful to humans and pets because they release toxins—a whole slew of them that when in contact with skin, inhaled, or ingested can cause skin blisters, sore throat and pneumonia, and gastrointestinal effects ranging from nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea to muscle weakness and pain in joints and limbs. For the past few summers we’ve seen beach closings in several Finger Lakes due to the presence of HABs, and there have been many cases of dogs becoming sick after swimming in or drinking affected water. The fear of HABs may also be having an effect on local tourism. NY State has devoted $65 million to a program to combat HABs in our region.

This region is a tourist mecca and another of the main draws, besides the lakes and other natural areas, is the wine industry. Boasting the first official wine trail in the nation, Cayuga Lake has well over a dozen wineries along its shores (as well as breweries, cideries, and distilleries)—all of them struggling to keep up with climate change. One potentially disastrous effect has been later bud “breaking” or opening. If newly opened buds are then hit with a single blast of really cold air, which can still commonly occur despite warmer temperatures, the grapes can be severely damaged. Similarly, another crop that’s important to our region, apples, are increasingly at risk of spring frost damage because, like grapes, they are tricked into blooming early.

Conversely, the region is seeing more extreme winter temperatures, as well, since the heating of the Arctic pushes cold air further south. All of which has required wineries and apple orchards to adapt by installing equipment like large fans that help circulate warm air, covering crops during particularly cold spells, and applying pesticides more frequently to fight off microbes and other pests that thrive in warmer conditions. All of this costs growers money. Looking just at the local wine industry, which accounts for nearly $6 billion in direct economic impact for the region, there’s a lot at stake.

Another agricultural product this region is well-known for is maple syrup. Predictions are that by the middle to last half of this century our climate here will be more like Virginia’s is today. According to maple researchers, the maple season has moved more than a week earlier since 1970. While that sounds good in terms of lengthening the season, it induces stresses on maple trees that, coupled with increased numbers of microbes and insect pests, could greatly affect their vitality. And that, along with warmer temperatures that slow the sap from running, means less sap overall. Further, droughts, like the one we saw in 2016, can greatly affect the sugar content of the sap—locally, producers saw it cut in half that year, which means needing more sap to get the same sweet syrup. According to a 2016 study, in order to make up for the lower production, maple syrup producers would need to add 5 million more taps. All of which, again, costs money.

Then there’s the dairy industry (milk production can decrease sharply with just a few unseasonably warm days, and during droughts yield losses of feed crops can be so high that it becomes harder to feed those cows), the ski industry (NY has more slopes than any other state in the nation), bird migrations (spring bird migrations across North America have shifted, with the timing of the shift not always aligning with the blooming of the plants and insects they rely on), and our own drinking water (Cornell, which relies on water from Fall Creek, and the City of Ithaca, which takes its water from Six Mile Creek, both have had to pull water from the lake during periods of drought; in addition, the City of Ithaca has purchased land along Six Mile Creek, well outside city boundaries, in order to better manage the stream beds to reduce runoff that was pushing higher than normal levels of sediment into the city’s treatment facility).

And things are only going to get worse before they can get better. Locally, the average temperature is projected to increase between 1.5 and 3 degrees Fahrenheit by 2030 (from 1970 figures), and 3 to 5.5 degrees by the 2050s. Days with lows below 0 degrees F will drop by 50% or more, while temperatures above 90 degrees are expected to more than double. While overall precipitation is likely to increase only moderately, we expect more of it in the winter and less in the late summer and early fall, with the occurrence of heavy downpours increasing by as much as 100% and droughts becoming more common, as well.

So hopefully you’re getting the picture. Climate change is here and it’s getting worse. All of these industries having to modify their practices—not to mention the vast amount of food produced in other, even more ravaged areas like California—costs money, which we’re all pitching in to. Repairing roads and bridges destroyed by overflowing streams is very expensive. Taking care of at-risk people in our community during extended heat waves is not only expensive but heart-wrenching.

We can no longer afford to do nothing. We know what we have to do to slow this runaway train known as climate change: stop burning fossil fuels, stop producing (and consuming) so much unneeded disposable stuff, eat lower on the food chain, conserve water (even here, where it’s usually abundant, keeping it clean takes a lot of energy), and drive less. Over the next few days we’ll give you more details on steps you can take to reduce your impact.

If you have any questions, please contact Guillermo Metz, Energy & Climate Change Team Leader at or 607-272-2292, x185. 

Last updated September 23, 2020