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The Five-Year Forecast

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Has the new El Niño had any effect yet on his business? Heppe shakes his head. After watching a freak blizzard bury Buffalo in mid-October, he’s betting El Niño stays weak for this winter season. But, as he admits, there’s always the outside chance that anything could happen: “It’s the weather.”

Your five-year weather forecast.

Nobody really knows what’ll happen more than a week in advance, of course. But if we assemble these major climatic trends, a rough snapshot of New York’s future begins to emerge.

First off, El Niño will keep our winters reasonably mild and reduce hurricanes in the immediate future, possibly until as late as 2008, because El Niños usually last for only one or two years.

Meanwhile, the AMO will remain in its warm phase, charging up storms and hurricanes off our shores, for much longer, probably another twenty years. So while El Niño may be driving a temporary reprieve in our nasty weather, once it dissipates, the long-term trend is back to tumultuous hurricane seasons.

The final ingredient in the mix is global warming. In the past century, the average temperature in New York has risen by two degrees, and the trend shows no sign of slowing down. Indeed, the computer models reviewed in the “Metropolitan East Coast Climate Assessment”—a 50-year prediction of New York’s changing climate, developed by nasa and Columbia University—suggest that the city will continue to heat up by as much as one degree by 2010, two degrees by 2020, and accelerate on a gentle curve until we reach as much as nine degrees warmer than now in 2100. It doesn’t particularly matter whether you believe the warming is man-made or a natural cycle (most, but not all, climatologists believe the former). The point is, pumping that much extra energy into the system is bound to have some effect.

The impact on our daily life, though, is the big question. A few degrees of warming won’t turn New York into a Miami-class shirtsleeves town. The effect will be more subtle: Climate scientists suspect that a warmer climate will produce more weather volatility. It’s not that we’ll have more rain overall, more snow overall, or more storms overall. But each event will be more intense than before.

A weather option pays for each degree of deviation from the mean. If it warms, you lose. Cold snap? You win.

“We’re more likely to get hotter heat waves,” says Mark Cane, a climatologist at Columbia University. “And increased storminess” adds Cullen. Both effects are due to the additional energy that global warming pumps into the “hydrological cycle,” the water and energy that circulates through the atmosphere—and it’s water that creates weather.

Indeed, we may already be seeing these effects. The last four winters have been seemingly pretty dry, but all have been punctuated by out-of-nowhere storms that dump so much snow on the city that the winter overall becomes wetter than normal. A string of hits like that hasn’t happened since the late- nineteenth century, which climatologists find ominous. The virulence of recent hurricanes may also be another early effect. Last fall, a paper in Science pointed out that in the past 35 years, hurricanes have remained steady in sheer numbers—there aren’t more of them. But when they hit, they’re more intense: The number of Category 1 hurricanes has shrunk, while the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes has doubled. Another paper in Nature found that hurricanes of the past 30 years have also increased in duration.

As Cullen puts it, global warming “messes with the probabilities. It loads the dice.”

Fifty years from now, the city will be transformed by climate change. Our buildings will be greener, crafted with energy-saving local generators and solar panels; indeed, the latest crop of skyscrapers are already being built that way. Long Island coastline properties will increasingly look like a risky hurricane bet—until everything calms down again in 2020, when the AMO shifts to cool. Spring will move a week or so earlier, as will the pollen season.

And, of course, the thick stands of ash in Central Park will vanish. But other things will emerge. The next time you look to the sky over Jamaica Bay, you may notice a string of long-necked birds flying in a peculiar formation—a perfectly straight line. If you listen carefully, you might hear a cry that sounds like grrrrrr. It’s the glossy ibis, a striking bird with a long, curved beak and a three-foot, shiny, bottle-green wingspan.

Five hundred years ago, local Indians would never have seen one of these birds. They’re a southern species, normally more at home in the everglades of Florida or the Georgian marshes. But the city’s already so much warmer that the Audubon chapter in New York has found that 300 mating pairs are now nesting in Jamaica Bay. “It’s a really amazing sight,” says E. J. McAdams, the group’s former executive director. “They’re really beautiful.”

Enjoy them while you can—because as the climate warms, the sea level off New York is predicted to rise by half a foot in the next fifteen years, swamping the ibis’s new habitat in Jamaica Bay.

The weather giveth, and the weather taketh away.


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