Like many of his colleagues, David Wolfe never actually expected to see serious climate change during his career. "I thought I would be laying the groundwork for the next generation of scientists," he said.
Yet, the living world is already responding to climate changes, said Wolfe, speaking at an Inside Cornell media luncheon on how ready New York is for climate change, Sept. 20 at Cornell's ILR Conference Center in New York City.
Such seasonal biological events as the blooming of flowers are happening earlier as a result of warmer temperatures. Whether animal species, such as the pollinators, will respond in a similar way and keep nature in balance remains a big question for researchers.
"Ecosystems are disassembling and reassembling in new ways," he said. This could mean less species diversity in the future, he warned.
In the next 100 years, we can expect New York to warm about 10 degrees if human use of fossil fuels continues at its current rate, he said. This is about the same amount of warming that has occurred over the past 10,000 years, since the last glacial period in our region. That is an increase in the pace of change by 100 times, he said.
"This speed is really unprecedented, going back millions of years in global history," said Wolfe, professor of plant and soil ecology and an expert on the effects of climate change on food crops, landscapes and ecosystems.
The situation is complicated for agriculture, he noted, where enormous expense and risk are involved in changing a crop to correspond with a changing climate. Dairy cows and cabbage, both of which represent huge markets for New York, prefer cooler temperatures, but to maintain such temperatures would necessitate substantial changes in farming infrastructure.
Yet warming temperatures could mean opportunities for new markets, he said. For example, European wine grapes, which are not native but are grown in the New York Finger Lakes region, cannot thrive in colder temperatures and may actually benefit from climate change.
Cornell is developing web-based decision tools, he told the reporters, to assist farmers with such complex questions as deciding on when to invest in a new field drainage system or the right time to change a perennial crop.
Wolfe's work is focused on how best to prepare for an uncertain climate. For example, the recent flooding in New York City was considered a one-in-100-year flood, but such floods are predicted to become more common, and investments now in preparedness could reduce taxpayer expenditure for disaster relief in the future, said Wolfe, who served on former N.Y. Gov. David Paterson's Climate Action Council.
Wolfe stressed the importance of such investments, which he added, should be part of New York's economic development plan.
"It really goes hand-in-hand with climate change preparedness," said Wolfe, co-author of the upcoming New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) study focused on preparing New York for climate change, expected to be released later this year.
Inside Cornell is a monthly series presented by Cornell's Division of University Communications and its Press Relations Office in Ithaca. The series provides an opportunity for the media to meet and discuss ideas with Cornell experts.
David Kessel is a freelance journalist in New York City.