Ex­treme cli­mate change is here

Parts of the U.S. have al­ready crossed a crit­i­cal warm­ing thresh­old


Be­fore cli­mate change thawed the win­ters of New Jer­sey, this lake hosted bois­ter­ous win­ter­time car­ni­vals. As many as 15,000 skaters took part, and au­to­mo­bile own­ers would drive onto the thick ice. Thou­sands watched as lo­cal hockey clubs bat­tled one an­other, and the Skate Sailing As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica held com­pe­ti­tions, in­clud­ing one in 1926 that fea­tured 21 ice­boats on blades that sailed over a three-mile course.

In those days be­fore wide­spread re­frig­er­a­tion, work­ers flocked here to har­vest ice. They would carve blocks as much as two feet thick, float them to gi­ant ice houses, sprin­kle them with saw­dust and load them onto rail cars bound for ice­boxes in New York City and be­yond.

“These win­ters do not ex­ist any­more,” says Marty Kane, a lawyer and head of the Lake Hopat­cong Foun­da­tion. That’s be­cause a cen­tury of climb­ing tem­per­a­tures has changed the char­ac­ter of the Gar­den State. The mas­sive ice in­dus­try and skate sailing as­so­ci­a­tion are but black-and­white pho­to­graphs at the lo­cal mu­seum. And even the hardy souls who still try to take part in ice fish­ing con­tests here have had to can­cel 11 of the past dozen com­pe­ti­tions for fear of stray­ing onto per­ilously thin ice and tum­bling into the frigid wa­ter.

New Jer­sey may seem an un­likely place to mea­sure cli­mate change, but it is one of the fastest-warm­ing states in the na­tion. Its av­er­age tem­per­a­ture has climbed by close to 2 de­grees Cel­sius (3.6 de­grees Fahren­heit) since 1895 — dou­ble the av­er­age for the Lower 48 states.

Over the past two decades, the 2-de­gree Cel­sius num­ber

has emerged as a crit­i­cal thresh­old for global warm­ing. In the 2015 Paris ac­cord, in­ter­na­tional lead­ers agreed that the world should act ur­gently to keep the Earth’s av­er­age tem­per­a­ture in­creases “well be­low” 2 de­grees Cel­sius by the year 2100 to avoid a host of cat­a­strophic changes.

The po­ten­tial con­se­quences are daunt­ing. The United Na­tions In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change warns that if Earth heats up by an av­er­age of 2 de­grees, vir­tu­ally all the world’s coral reefs will die; re­treat­ing ice sheets in Green­land and Antarc­tica could un­leash mas­sive sea level rise; and sum­mer­time Arc­tic sea ice, a shield against fur­ther warm­ing, would be­gin to dis­ap­pear.

But global warm­ing does not heat the world evenly.

A Washington Post anal­y­sis of more than a cen­tury of Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion tem­per­a­ture data across the Lower 48 states and 3,107 coun­ties has found that ma­jor ar­eas are near­ing or have al­ready crossed the 2-de­gree Cel­sius mark.

— To­day, more than 1 in 10 Amer­i­cans — 34 mil­lion peo­ple — are liv­ing in rapidly heat­ing re­gions, in­clud­ing New York City and Los An­ge­les. Seventy-one coun­ties have al­ready hit the 2C mark.

— Alaska is the fastest-warm­ing state in the coun­try, but Rhode Is­land is the first state in the Lower 48 whose av­er­age tem­per­a­ture rise has eclipsed 2 de­grees. Other parts of the North­east — New Jer­sey, Con­necti­cut, Maine and Mas­sachusetts — trail close be­hind.

— While many peo­ple as­so­ciate global warm­ing with sum­mer’s melt­ing glaciers, forest fires and dis­as­trous flood­ing, it is higher win­ter tem­per­a­tures that have made New Jer­sey and nearby Rhode Is­land the fastest warm­ing of the Lower 48 states.

The av­er­age New Jer­sey tem­per­a­ture from De­cem­ber through Fe­bru­ary now ex­ceeds 32 de­grees Fahren­heit, the tem­per­a­ture at which wa­ter freezes. That thresh­old, reached over the past three decades, has meant lakes don’t freeze as of­ten, snow melts more quickly, and in­sects and pests don’t die as they once did in the harsher cold.

The freez­ing point “is the most crit­i­cal thresh­old among all tem­per­a­tures,” said David A. Robin­son, New Jer­sey state cli­ma­tol­o­gist and pro­fes­sor at Rut­gers Uni­ver­sity’s depart­ment of ge­og­ra­phy.

The un­even rise in tem­per­a­tures across the United States matches what is hap­pen­ing around the world.

In the past cen­tury, the Earth has warmed 1 de­gree Cel­sius (1.8 de­grees Fahren­heit). But that’s just an av­er­age. Some parts of the globe — in­clud­ing the moun­tains of Ro­ma­nia and the steppes of Mon­go­lia — have reg­is­tered in­creases twice as large. It has taken decades or in some cases a cen­tury. But for huge swaths of the planet, cli­mate change is a present-tense re­al­ity, not one loom­ing omi­nously in the dis­tant future.

To find the world’s 2C hot spots, its fastest-warm­ing places, The Post an­a­lyzed tem­per­a­ture data­bases, in­clud­ing those kept by NASA and NOAA; peer-re­viewed sci­en­tific stud­ies; and re­ports by lo­cal cli­ma­tol­o­gists. The global data sets draw upon thou­sands of land-based weather sta­tions and other mea­sure­ments, such as ocean buoys armed with sen­sors and ship logs dat­ing as far back as 1850.

In any one geo­graphic lo­ca­tion, 2 de­grees Cel­sius may not rep­re­sent global cat­a­clysmic change, but it can threaten ecosys­tems, change land­scapes and up­end liveli­hoods and cul­tures.

In Lake Hopat­cong, thin­ning ice let loose waves of aquatic weeds that or­di­nar­ily die in the cold. This year, a new blow: Fol­low­ing one of the warm­est springs of the past cen­tury, harm­ful bac­te­ria known as blue-green al­gae bloomed in the lake just as the tourist sea­son was tak­ing off in June.

New Jer­sey’s largest lake was shut down af­ter the state’s environmen­tal agency warned against swim­ming or fish­ing “for weeks, if not longer.”

The na­tion’s hot spots will get ab­sent a global plan to slash emis­sions of the green­house gases fu­el­ing cli­mate change. By the time the im­pacts are fully rec­og­nized, the change may be ir­re­versible.

Daniel Pauly, an in­flu­en­tial ma­rine sci­en­tist at the Uni­ver­sity of Bri­tish Columbia, says the 2-de­gree hot spots are early warn­ing sirens of a cli­mate shift.

“Ba­si­cally,” he said, “these hot spots are chunks of the future in the present.”

Amer­ica’s hot spots

Na­tion­wide, trends are clear. Start­ing in the late 1800s, U.S. tem­per­a­tures be­gan to rise and con­tin­ued slowly up through the 1930s. The na­tion then cooled slightly for sev­eral decades. But start­ing around 1970, tem­per­a­tures rose steeply.

At the county level, the data re­veals iso­lated 2-de­gree clus­ters: high-al­ti­tude deserts in Ore­gon; stretches of the west­ern Rocky Moun­tains that feed the Colorado River; a clutch of coun­ties along the north­east­ern shore of Lake Michi­gan — home to the famed Sleep­ing Bear Dunes Na­tional Lakeshore near Tra­verse City.

Along the Cana­dian bor­der, a string of coun­ties from east­ern Mon­tana to Min­nesota are quickly heat­ing up.

The to­pog­ra­phy of warm­ing varies. It is in­tense at some high el­e­va­tions, such as in Utah and Colorado, and along some highly pop­u­lated coasts: Tem­per­a­tures have risen by 2C in Los An­ge­les and three neigh­bor­ing coun­ties. New York City is also warm­ing rapidly, and so are the very dif­fer­ent ar­eas around it, such as the beach re­sorts in the Hamptons and leafy Westch­ester County.

The smaller the area, the more dif­fi­cult it is to pin­point the cause of warm­ing. Ur­ban heat effects, chang­ing air pol­lu­tion lev­els, ocean cur­rents, events like the Dust Bowl, and nat­u­ral cli­mate wob­bles such as El Niño could all be play­ing some role, ex­perts say.

The only part of the United States that has not warmed sig­nif­i­cantly since the late 1800s is the South, es­pe­cially Mis­sis­sippi and Alabama, where data in some cases shows mod­est cool­ing. Sci­en­tists have at­trib­uted this “warm­ing hole” to at­mo­spheric cy­cles driven by the Pa­cific and At­lantic oceans, along with par­ti­cles of soot from smoke­stacks and tailpipes, which have dam­ag­ing health effects but can block some of the sun’s in­ten­sity. Those types of pol­lu­tants were cur­tailed by environmen­tal poli­cies, while car­bon diox­ide re­mained un­reg­u­lated for decades.

Since the 1960s, how­ever, the re­gion’s tem­per­a­tures have been in­creas­ing along with the rest of the coun­try’s.

The North­east is warm­ing es­pe­cially fast.

An­thony Broc­coli, a cli­mate sci­en­tist at Rut­gers, de­fines an un­worse, usu­ally warm or cold month as rank­ing among the five most ex­treme in the record go­ing back to the late 1800s. In the case of New Jer­sey, he says, “since 2000, we’ve had 39 months that were unusu­ally warm and zero that were unusu­ally cold.”

Sci­en­tists do not com­pletely un­der­stand the North­east hot spot. But fad­ing win­ters and very warm wa­ter off­shore are the most likely cul­prits, ex­perts say. That’s be­cause cli­mate change is a cy­cle that feeds on it­self.

Warmer win­ters mean less ice and snow cover. Nor­mally, ice and snow re­flect so­lar ra­di­a­tion back into space, keep­ing the planet rel­a­tively cool. But as the ice and snow re­treat, the ground ab­sorbs the so­lar ra­di­a­tion and warms.

NOAA data shows that in ev­ery North­east state ex­cept Penn­syl­va­nia, the tem­per­a­tures of the win­ter months of De­cem­ber through Fe­bru­ary have risen by 2 de­grees Cel­sius since 1895-1896. And U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey data shows that ice breaks up in New Eng­land lakes nine to 16 days ear­lier than in the 19th cen­tury.

This doesn’t mean the states can’t have ex­treme win­ters any­more. Po­lar vor­tex events, in which frigid Arc­tic air de­scends into the heart of the coun­try, can still bring bit­ing cold. But the over­all trend re­mains the same and is set to con­tinue. One re­cent study found that by the time the en­tire globe crosses 2 de­grees the North­east can ex­pect to have risen by about 3 de­grees Cel­sius (5.4 de­grees Fahren­heit), with win­ter tem­per­a­tures higher still. Los­ing 3 feet of beach a year

Cli­mate change plays havoc dif­fer­ently in dif­fer­ent places.

In Rhode Is­land, Nar­ra­gansett Bay has warmed as much as 1.6 de­grees Cel­sius (2.9 de­grees Fahren­heit) in the past 50 years, and for want of cooler wa­ter, the state’s lob­ster catch has plum­meted 75 per­cent in the past two decades.

Along the shore­line, the hot­ter and higher sea is shuf­fling the lineup of ocean­front homes.

Roy Car­pen­ter’s Beach is a col­lec­tion of sum­mer cot­tages along a quar­ter-mile stretch that is erod­ing faster than any other part of the state — an av­er­age of 3.3 feet a year.

Rob Thore­sen’s great-grand­fa­ther bought the prop­erty nearly a cen­tury ago, and res­i­dents liv­ing in 377 cot­tages there now lease the land from the fam­ily busi­ness.

About a decade ago, the fam­ily tried — in vain — to per­suade res­i­dents to move away from the en­croach­ing ocean. Their re­luc­tance was no sur­prise; the back of the prop­erty fea­tures a view of corn­fields.

But then the coast took an in­di­rect hit from Hur­ri­cane Sandy. It dam­aged 11 homes in the com­mu­nity’s front row, with three of them wash­ing out to sea. The surf laps over the re­mains of con­crete foun­da­tions and wooden py­lons, knock­ing over con­struc­tion fences.

In 2013, 28 fam­i­lies in the first and sec­ond rows started mov­ing to the back of the de­vel­op­ment — roughly 1,000 feet away. The com­mu­nity is plan­ning to move an­other 20 houses.

It is ex­pen­sive. Home­own­ers pay to phys­i­cally move their cot­tages or de­mol­ish them and re­build. Matunuck Beach Prop­er­ties, the man­age­ment com­pany, must sur­vey the prop­er­ties and pre­pare new lo­ca­tions, lay­ing out new roads and sewer pipes.

Tony Loura, who has sum­mered in Roy Car­pen­ter’s Beach for 15 years, is philo­soph­i­cal about his predica­ment. He is on the fourth row, where he has an un­ob­structed view of the ocean from his rock­ing chair. He es­ti­mates that he used to be 1,000 feet from the wa­ter. Now, the ocean is only about 150 feet away.

“I’m hop­ing that I’m back far enough that I won’t have to move to the back,” said Loura, 66. “Ev­ery time they say there’s a storm, I get wor­ried.”

With 420 miles of coast­line, Rhode Is­land is par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to the va­garies of the Gulf Stream, a mas­sive warm cur­rent that trav­els up the East Coast from the Gulf of Mex­ico be­fore mak­ing a right turn to­ward Green­land and Europe.

The Gulf Stream is enor­mous,

en­com­pass­ing more wa­ter than “all of the world’s rivers com­bined,” ac­cord­ing to NOAA. It is one part of an even larger global “con­veyor belt” of cur­rents that trans­port heat around the world.

A slow­ing of these cur­rents, which sci­en­tists think is caused by the melt­ing of Arc­tic ice, has pushed the Gulf Stream closer to the East Coast, bring­ing more warm wa­ter and, per­haps, hot­ter tem­per­a­tures on­shore. Off­shore, it has be­come its own hot spot, help­ing to boost wa­ter tem­per­a­tures by 2 de­grees Cel­sius or more in some re­gions.

If the slow­ing con­tin­ues, seas could rise far­ther and faster. That’s be­cause when the cur­rent slows, wa­ter it was driv­ing to­ward Europe drifts back across the At­lantic to the U.S. coast­line. Sci­en­tists are try­ing to de­ter­mine whether the Gulf Stream is al­ready con­tribut­ing to rapid sea level rise on the East Coast.

Ti­dal gauges show sea lev­els have risen roughly nine inches since 1930, and researcher­s at the Uni­ver­sity of Rhode Is­land have de­ter­mined that the rate has quick­ened by about a third in re­cent years.

By 2030, sea level rise will flood 605 build­ings six times a year, ac­cord­ing to the Rhode Is­land Coastal Re­sources Man­age­ment Coun­cil’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Grover Fu­gate.

Roy Car­pen­ter’s Beach is es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble.

Some res­i­dents want the beach’s own­ers to fight off the sea, Loura said.

“They think they should build a sea wall, they should bring in tons of sand,” he said. “Last year, they spent a lot of money on sand. Guess what? It’s all gone.”

Thore­sen’s fam­ily is mov­ing a con­ve­nience store and of­fice for the sec­ond time in a decade — this time all the way back to the 18th row.

“We moved it back 100 feet, and it only bought us 10 years,” Thore­sen said. “That’s crazy.”

That’s what peo­ple who live in 2-de­gree zones are dis­cov­er­ing: that cli­mate change seems re­mote or in­vis­i­ble, un­til all of a sud­den it is in­escapable.

‘The ice is not safe any­more’

Here at Lake Hopat­cong, Tim Clancy, 65, a ruddy-faced fish­er­man and re­tiree, has helped run the an­nual ice fish­ing con­tests for years. He has a photo of him­self taken in 2015, stand­ing in the mid­dle of the frozen lake, a string of four perch dan­gling from one hand, his 400-pound all-ter­rain buggy parked on the ice be­hind him.

“It was like a tail­gate party. Mid­night mad­ness. Peo­ple camped out with their snow­mo­biles,” he says. “But the ice is not safe any­more.”

At the Lake Hopat­cong Foun­da­tion of­fices, di­rec­tor Kane re­calls that the lake used to freeze over by Thanks­giv­ing and now rarely does so be­fore Jan­uary.

Ac­cord­ing to records kept by the lo­cal Knee Deep Club, a fish­ing group, 26 fish­ing con­tests were can­celed be­cause of poor ice con­di­tions from 1998 through 2019. Only 19 were held suc­cess­fully.

Nine miles long, Lake Hopat­cong sits be­tween two coun­ties — Sus­sex and Mor­ris — in the state’s north­west. Both have been warm­ing fast, es­pe­cially in win­ter. Ac­cord­ing to The Post’s re­view of New Jer­sey data, win­ter tem­per­a­tures in Sus­sex have in­creased 2.6 de­grees Cel­sius (4.7 de­grees Fahren­heit) since the win­ter of 1895-1896. For Mor­ris, the win­ter in­crease has been slightly sharper 2.7 de­grees Cel­sius (4.9 de­grees Fahren­heit).

Robin­son, the state cli­ma­tol­o­gist, found that Jan­uary tem­per­a­tures in Sus­sex County gen­er­ally need to av­er­age around 25 to 26 de­grees Fahren­heit for suc­cess­ful ice fish­ing.

In­stead, av­er­age win­ter tem­per­a­tures are mov­ing closer to the freez­ing point, with some win­ters now ex­ceed­ing 32 de­grees Fahren­heit.

It is not just the lake that is be­ing wracked by cli­mate changes.

From the Jer­sey Shore to the shop­ping malls of Para­mus, from hik­ing trails in the north­west to the Bay­way oil re­fin­ery, the state faces ex­cep­tion­ally heavy and un­pre­dictable rain­fall — even for New Jer­sey. Last year, it was in­un­dated by a record 64.77 inches of rain­fall statewide, 40 per­cent above av­er­age.

Pests, no longer erad­i­cated by cold win­ters, are at­tack­ing peo­ple, crops and land­scapes alike.

The 1/8-inch-long south­ern pine bee­tle had been largely con­fined to south­ern U.S. forests — hence its name. But the warmer tem­per­a­tures have spurred the bee­tle’s mi­gra­tion north, where it has dam­aged more than 20,000 acres of the state’s Pine Bar­rens, a vast coastal forested plain that Congress has de­fined as a na­tional re­serve.

“They are chang­ing the Pinelands,” says Matthew Ayres, a Dart­mouth researcher who has stud­ied the bee­tle. “It may not be too long be­fore peo­ple are driv­ing through the Pinelands say­ing, ‘Why do they call it the Pinelands?’ ”

Mos­qui­toes, once dubbed on post­cards as New Jer­sey’s “air force,” have longer sea­sons. The War­ren County Mos­quito Con­trol Com­mis­sion, whose records date to 1987, uses fixed-wing air­craft to drop a gran­u­lar, nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring soil mi­crobe on swamps to kill the mos­quito lar­vae.

But the bugs may be winning the air war. The com­mis­sion’s flights are more fre­quent, and the past eight years, led by 2018, have had the high­est num­bers of acres treated an­nu­ally. Mos­qui­toes car­ry­ing West Nile virus came up from the South 20 years ago. Last year, War­ren be­came the last county in the state to reg­is­ter hu­man cases of the dis­ease.

“Mos­quito sea­son used to start on June 1 and end on Sept. 30,” said Rut­gers pro­fes­sor Dina Fon­seca, an expert on in­sect-borne dis­ease. But un­less the air war starts ear­lier in the spring, “you’re not go­ing to ad­dress the mos­quito prob­lem.”

‘Com­pletely dead’

On a cool but sunny day in May, Fred Lub­now, di­rec­tor of aquatic pro­grams at Prince­ton Hy­dro, and Katie Wal­ston, a se­nior sci­en­tist there, pulled up their an­chor in Lake Hopat­cong to find it cov­ered with aquatic weeds. The cul­prit? Fer­til­izer runoff com­bined with win­ters too warm to kill them off.

“The plants start grow­ing ear­lier and linger around longer, as well,” Lub­now said. The thick ice blocked sun­light from nur­tur­ing the weeds. But “in some of these shal­low ar­eas, as early as Fe­bru­ary, we’re look­ing through the ice see­ing the plants grow­ing.”

By sum­mer, the weeds be­come a nui­sance, forc­ing the state gov­ern­ment to “har­vest” them with large pad­dles and toss them onto a con­veyor belt, then onto barges. Some years, fund­ing has been hard to get, de­lay­ing har­vest­ing and an­ger­ing home­own­ers.

“If this area is not har­vested, you can’t get a boat through it,” Lub­now says. Swim­ming isn’t pos­si­ble, ei­ther. Fish­ing be­comes dif­fi­cult.

In late June, dis­as­ter struck. The New Jer­sey Depart­ment of Environmen­tal Pro­tec­tion de­tected toxic bac­te­ria known as blue­green al­gae. Ae­rial pho­tos showed the tell­tale large streaks of “pea soup” across the lake. The agency urged peo­ple to avoid swim­ming, wad­ing and wa­ter­sport ac­tiv­i­ties such as jet-ski­ing, kayak­ing, wind­surf­ing and pad­dle­board­ing.

“It’s al­most put us out of busi­ness,” says John Clark, co-owner of Lit­tle Nicki’s Ital­ian res­tau­rant, which looks out onto the lake. Lit­tle Nicki’s does nearly a tenth of its busi­ness over the first two week­ends in July and is usu­ally jammed the af­ter­noon be­fore July 4. Yet there were only three peo­ple there that day. Clark es­ti­mated that busi­ness was down by half.

“It’s com­pletely dead. Ev­ery­one was hav­ing a ban­ner year. Then you hit a wall.”


Roy Car­pen­ter’s Beach, a col­lec­tion of sum­mer cot­tages along the ocean in Rhode Is­land, is lo­cated on a stretch of rapidly erod­ing land, los­ing an av­er­age of 3.3 feet per year. A decade ago, the fam­ily that owns the prop­erty tried in vain to per­suade res­i­dents to move away from the wa­ter. Since Hur­ri­cane Sandy, which washed homes out to sea, the com­mu­nity has started mov­ing houses to the back of the de­vel­op­ment.


TOP: Lit­tle Nicki’s, an Ital­ian res­tau­rant across the street from Lake Hopat­cong in New Jer­sey, is usu­ally jammed for the sum­mer, but the lake’s clo­sure — due to toxic bac­te­ria — has put a damper on busi­ness. MID­DLE: Sci­en­tists Fred Lub­now and Katie Wal­ston mon­i­tor wa­ter tem­per­a­tures and weed growth in the lake. The weeds, above, are pro­lif­er­at­ing be­cause of fer­til­izer runoff and win­ters too warm to kill them. If they grow too thick, the plants can im­pede boat­ing, swim­ming and fish­ing.

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