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From Acid Rain to Climate Change

From Acid Rain to Climate Change June 19, 2024
Photo of sunset.

By 2050, according to the World Bank, nearly 7 of every 10 persons alive will live in cities. Today, 56% of the world’s population – 4.4 billion inhabitants – live in urban centers, and, not un-coincidentally, more people than ever – nearly 2 in 5 Americans – live with unhealthy levels of ambient air pollution.

Climate change is fueling the rise in fine particulate air pollution, a toxic smog of wildfire smoke, exhaust, drought and dust, a new report from the American Lung Association tells us.

“These new threats to air quality have direct impacts on daily life, determining whether you can leave your house or not on any given day,” Rocci Aguirre, who was named the Adirondack Council’s executive director in 2023, said in an April, 2024 interview.

According to Aguirre, the threats to the Adirondack Park emanating from outside the Blue Line add new urgency to its mandate to preserve the park’s unique character – a place where wilderness surrounds living, working communities.

As one the largest intact temperate forest ecosystems still left, the Adirondack Forest Preserve’s influence extends beyond the park, sequestering carbon and reducing such climate change impacts as air pollution, water stress and flooding throughout the Hudson River watersheds.

The Adirondack Park is also a living, natural laboratory – “a canary in the coal mine,” as Aguirre puts it, a 6-million-acre island that can act as a proxy for the rest of the world as it wrestles with the fallout from climate change.

This past year, the Adirondack Council was an especially high profile player in the debates surrounding the passage of the state budget, urging legislators to fund, among other things,  the “Survey of Climate Change in Adirondack Lake Ecosystems,” or SCALE, a partnership of RPI, Cornell and the Ausable River Association and other universities and non-profits to study the many ways in which climate change has affected the region’s freshwater bodies over the past forty years.

Launched at a 2-day 2021 workshop organized by Cornell aquatic conservation biologist Pete McIntyre and Kevin Rose, the RPI freshwater ecologist who works on Lake George, directing the Darrin Freshwater Institute and the Jefferson Project, SCALE is funded by NYSERDA (the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.)

“We’re starting to see measurable impacts of climate change in our lakes, such as the loss of ice cover; in response, NYSERDA and other state agencies have asked us to develop a baseline assessment of climate-sensitive indicators of water quality so that we can better understand the long-term impacts of climate change,” Rose said in a recent interview.

According to Rose, SCALE is in many ways a legacy of the federally-funded programs of the 1990s – many led by RPI scientists from the Darrin Fresh Water Institute – which studied the effects of amendments to the 1970 Clean Air Act on acid-sensitive Adirondack lakes.

Those studies found that as the emissions that form acid rain declined, improvements in the water quality of acid-sensitive lakes and streams were evident.

One of those lakes, Brooktrout Lake, showed such a remarkable rate of recovery that a decision was made to restock it with brook trout, a species which flourished there in the 1930s but had vanished by 1984, a victim of acid deposition.

According to Rose, NYSERDA and other funding agencies have “started to transition away from monitoring acid deposition and toward surveys of the impacts of climate change.”

“The goal of SCALE is to do a survey analogous to those earlier studies,” said Rose.

According to Rocci Aguirre, “The physical, chemical, and biological data that SCALE will collect here will, of course, be relevant to our tourism-based communities, but it will also give all New Yorkers a better understanding of how lakes respond to air pollution and global warming, and how to protect our environment from new and emerging threats.”

By the time the FY 2025 budget was adopted on April 22, a second $2 million appropriation for the program had been approved.

“Governor Kathy Hochul had proposed cutting the SCALE appropriation from the budget, putting the future of the project in peril,” said Kevin Chlad, the Adirondack Council’s Director of Government Relations.

Fortunately, said John Sheehan, the Adirondack Council’s longtime spokesman, “SCALE was saved from cuts.”

“We saw that the Governor’s office and the legislature appreciate the value of data and the need for it,” said Aguirre.  “We hope that both the governor and the legislature will continue to support the multi-year, multi-million-dollar SCALE in the years ahead so that its survey and the analysis will continue.”

SCALE’s research on climate and air pollution in the Adirondacks are of benefit to all residents of the state, but especially to those living in cities, Aguirre said.

As Kevin Chlad testified during budget hearings, “Highly populated regions of our state face the specter of severe flooding and storm impacts if we do not successfully address climate chaos,” he testified.  “Large forested regions, the biggest of which are found in the Adirondacks, will slow climate change and associated impacts if we take the necessary steps to protect (them).”

Advocating for programs such as SCALE, and in general for all policies that “address climate chaos,” is necessarily a part of the Adirondack Council’s mission, said Aguirre.

“The fight to protect the Adirondacks’ lakes from acid rain, taking that fight to Washington DC, educating elected officials about the impacts that distant power plants were having on the Adirondacks, put the Adirondack Council on the national map,” said Aguirre. “Today, fighting climate change is redefining the role played by the Adirondack Council at both the state and national levels.” 

That doesn’t mean, however, that the mission of the Adirondack Council has changed, said Aguirre.

“We’ll evolve as an organization, but we’ll continue to be the advocate for the Park, as a facilitator for and an agent of change, always finding new ways to engage with others in this space,” said Aguirre.

Meanwhile, as the Council’s Forever Adirondacks Campaign Director, Aaron Mair asserts, the park’s safeguards will continue to send “a strong message of hope” to the rest of the world that “careful protection can re-create wilderness lost to industrial impacts.”

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