March 7, 2014
Pennsylvania is expected to be almost completely devoid of snow in decades to come. That's according to one of the contributors to the state's climate impacts assessment. As The Allegheny Front series Climate Chronicles begins, we speak with Ray Najjar, oceanographer, at Penn State University.
He explains what future temperature and precipitation scenarios look like for the state.
"Over the next 30 years, then the following 30 years, pretty much the state is almost completely devoid of snow," Najjar says. "It's still going to snow, it'll just be dramatically reduced."
That will matter for all sorts of reasons—milder winters may mean pests like ticks won't die off and flora and fauna will have to adjust.
But there's something else that troubles Najjar: "The climate really is a central defining character of a region."
"It's often one of the first things people talk about when they talk about where they live," he says. "So to imagine Pennsylvania with summers like northern Alabama summers and winters that are pretty much devoid of snow—some people might like that, but I feel like it's it's upsetting the balance."
Najjar says he has a high level of confidence in the models predicting these changes.
"As a statistician famously said, all models are wrong, but some are useful," Najjar says. " Climate models are very useful. They're our only window into the future. They are remarkably good at simulating the large-scale patterns, particularly when you look at them in the aggregate, and that's what I've found for the state of Pennsylvania."
The state's updated climate impact assessment came out in October. Although Najjar and others had contributed work to the report many months before that, the assessment was not immediately made public by the Department of Environmental Protection.
That was one of a couple signs that climate change isn't a front-burner issue for Gov. Tom Corbett's administration.
In December, the DEP's Secretary, Chris Abruzzo, was moving through the confirmation process for his job. During the confirmation hearings, he said he didn't think climate change was causing such significant impacts that Pennsylvania needed to change policies to curtail the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
Asked about Abruzzo's plan for the DEP to stay its course, Najjar says, "I think it's a bad idea. I think we need to dramatically reduce our emissions and I think we can do it. Renewable energy technologies are here and the cost associated with them compared with economic cost and ethical implications are modest. Reducing emissions makes a lot of sense."
Still, we are locked into a certain amount of warming in the next few decades, since carbon dioxide, a chief contributor to climate change, doesn't easily dissipate.
"If we were to stop emitting it, its concentration would begin to decrease but very slowly over many decades," Najjar says.
Nonetheless, Najjar says he's not a "doom and gloom" guy.
"I think we often forget that we have solved really big problems in the past," Najjar says. "And the next generation of young scientists and policymakers, I have faith in them."
Photo of Ray Najjar: Penn State University. Graphics courtesy of Union of Concerned Scientists