Posted by: teatown | January 2, 2010

Hudson Valley Climate Change

Climate Change in The Hudson Hills and Highlands: What Can we Expect?

World leaders recently gathered in Copenhagen to debate how humankind should respond to a warming planet and changing climate. Optimists concluded that progress was made in Copenhagen, but from my perspective the results were more hot air than political resolve.  This lack of commitment tells me that collectively people don’t fully understand the climate change issue: what we know and how we know it; what is likely to happen and when; and how will a warming planet affect us locally in our daily lives.  Luckily, there is much information available online.  As a starting point, I recommend the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the National Council for Science and the  Environment’s websites Climate Solutions and the Encyclopedia of Earth.

In the last century, the Earth’s average surface temperature increased by over 1oF. The warming has been greater at the poles, already significantly reducing polar ice and changing weather patterns and sea level heights worldwide. The Earth is now warmer than it has been in 650,000 years – and is expected to climb another three to ten degrees this century!

Scientists tell us that a rising temperature of just a few degrees, surprisingly will cause a cascade of  detrimental climatic changes (e.g. in precipitation patterns causing both droughts and floods, and in sea level heights) and biological changes (e.g. in geographic ranges of wildlife and rates of species survival). In the last decade, a broad scientific consensus has emerged that global warming and climate change are due to increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. While volcanoes and other natural events release greenhouse gases, it is the human-driven emissions of carbon dioxide over the last 150 years from burning fossil fuels for energy, as well as released gases from  deforestation and our agricultural practices, that are responsible for a warming Earth.

Global warming and climate change are global and local issues. Globally, never before has a pollutant released anywhere had a worldwide impact. The flip side is, regardless of where greenhouse gases are reduced, the world benefits. However, despite the global nature of the cause of global warming, the specific consequences to people (e.g. losses or gains of arable land and more or less flooding) will vary greatly from place to place. Adjusting to these shifting geographies will be a key challenge for people everywhere.

 Hudson Valley’s Future Climate

Hudson Valley Winter

Will Hudson Valley winter scenes like this one be in our future? Maybe not, as climate change already is evident in New York’s Hudson Valley. A Columbia University study in 2001 found that over the past 100 years, temperature in the New York Metropolitan Region warmed nearly 2oF, double the global average, and precipitation increased 2%. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that since 1970, the Northeast United States has been warming at a rate of nearly 0.5°F per decade. Winter temperatures have risen even faster, at a rate of 1.3°F per decade. This warming has been correlated with many other climate-related changes in the Northeast, including: 1) more frequent days with temperatures above 90°F; 2) a longer growing season; 3) less winter precipitation falling as snow and more as rain; 4) earlier spring snowmelt resulting in earlier peak river flows; 5) rising sea levels; and 6) increasing storms with flooding.

Naturalists in the Hudson Valley also have made observations consistent with climate change predictions. Thirty years ago, for example, the Carolina Wren was rarely seen at Teatown, now this once southern bird species is common. Some botanists suggest that vines and poison ivy are increasing dramatically along our roadways because of their special ability to utilize rising levels of carbon dioxide for growth. One recent study estimated that 30% of species in the United States have responded to changing climates by shifting home ranges or adjusting their timing of seasonal events. Biologists fear that because species have different abilities to respond to climate change our natural communities are under considerable flux. Within the context of an already stressed environment, climate change might lead to damaged ecosystems, many species extinctions, and loss of ecological services.

While it is agreed that our weather is changing, do we know what our future Hudson Valley climate will be, say in 2100? The answer is “somewhat,” but the ultimate outcome depends on our current and near future actions. There is a lag between our actions and the consequences to global warming. Our past greenhouse gas emissions, for example, have already determined our fate for the next 20-30 years, but the actions the world takes starting now will set the climate in the Hudson Valley in 2100. Also, just how well Valley residents are able to cope with their climate in 2100 will depend on how wise our preparations are over the course of this century. A storm is coming, preparedness is key.

Last year, The Nature Conservancy’s New York Eastern Chapter in collaboration with a diverse group of 160 stakeholders initiated “Rising Waters,” a project to help Hudson Valley communities prepare for climate change. Assuming mid-level amounts of emission reductions, the project provided a hint of what our Hudson Valley climate might look like in 2030 and 2100.  The project also presented four scenarios that describe different outcomes based on differing  types of  preparedness for the Hudson River Estuary Watershed from 2010 to 2030. These scenarios help us imagine the future — hopefully to take action today. One variable among the scenarios of special relevance to environmentalists is how much will we try to control nature versus working with nature. For example, will we try to control flooding along rivers with engineering solutions or “give rivers room” by increasing the size of regulated flood plains.

Predicted Hudson Valley Climate, 2030 and 2100. Baseline for all variables is the average of 1961-1990 values, except for temperature, sea level, and snow, where the baseline is the average from 1970-1999  (adapted from the Rising Waters Project, Nature Conservancy, Mt. Kisco, NY).

Climate Variable 2030 2100
Average Annual Temperate + 2.20°F +6.2°F
Average Winter Temperature + 3.3°F + 7.8°F
Sea Level Rise + 2.8 inches + 16.5 inches or more
Precipitation + 0.6%  More intense storms + 8% More intense storms
Snow More rain and less snow Even more rain and less snow
Heat Waves 22 days per year over 90°F and 3 days over 100°F 54 days per year over 90°F     and 16 days over 100°F
Timing of Seasons Growing season 5 days longer Growing season 35 days longer


 Responding Locally to a Warming World

Our local responses to global warming in the Hudson Hills and Highlands will likely fall into two broad areas: 1) reducing greenhouse gas emissions; and 2) preparing for the human consequences from climate change. Lowering our share of the world’s greenhouse gases will primarily come through the same actions that ought to take place everywhere: improved energy production and conservation; more efficient cars and transportation systems; more efficient industrial and agricultural practices; more mindful consumer purchasing practices; and new land use and smart growth policies.

Based on current climate predictions, preparations for climate change in our Hudson Valley region likely will focus on the expected extreme weather and the inevitable detrimental affects to human health. We will need to improve our adaptations to flooding and heat waves. Physicians will need to be alert to new patterns of disease. Sea level rises are especially problematic for Manhattan and along the Hudson River, because the most recent data suggest that our current estimates for rising seas, which already are bad, might be understated. Climatologists now believe that the Northeast United States will suffer some of the greatest sea level rises in the world! Destruction of private property from storm surges, frequently flooded roads and rail lines, and even seeing southern Manhattan underwater are possibilities. These consequences, of course, will bring huge financial implications with them to the Hudson Valley and New York. We need to be preparing now for these events through improved regional planning, changes to infrastructure and climate-realistic policies.  Unfortunately, in the midst of an economic crisis, local preparations largely have stalled.   

 Conserving Nature Will Be Key to our Children’s Survival

From an ecological perspective, a necessary third response to global warming in the Hudson Valley (and everywhere) is needed: help nature prepare for the consequences of climate change. While it is understandable that civic leaders focus first on human interests  (e.g. flooding, food production and transportation), ultimately, if our natural foundation is broken our human communities will fail. Nature is the ultimate cornerstone of our economic prosperity and well-being. Healthy levels of biodiversity and functioning ecosystems are necessary to build a sustainable world for our children and all future generations. Therefore, part of the solution to climate change is to help species survive across broad regions – to keep landscapes living and ecological services in tact.

Four actions to help nature survive climate change in the Hudson Valley are: 1) reduce other environmental stressors, such as habitat lost, invasive species, and pollution; 2) work with nature whenever possible, rather than trying to control nature; 3) conserve more land, especially around and between already protected parcels; and 4) make private land more nature-friendly.  Conserving land,  building corridors between parks, and adding more nature-friendly private land will make it easier for animals and plants to respond to climate change when they move north and need to adjust to new ecological communities. Scientist would say, “we are adding resilience to the system.” Conserving land will be especially important because it both helps nature survive and it helps reduce greenhouse gases. For example, 16% of our country’s carbon emissions are currently offset by open space. All of us can contribute to these four actions. Together we can make a difference!


Note:  This article first appeared  in Teatown Lake Reservation’s Winter 2010 Trails magazine.

Posted by: teatown | October 9, 2009

Our Region as a Living Landscape

The Hudson Hills and Highlands – A Living Landscape

Teatown has coined the phrase Hudson Hills and Highlands to describe the portion of the Hudson Valley that results by combining the spectacularly scenic Hudson Highlands with the watershed of the lower Hudson River. The resulting 936 square mile area encompasses most of New York’s Westchester and Putnam counties, and parts of Dutchess, Rockland, and Orange counties. It is home to 785,000 people living in 37 municipalities, that on average are located 38 miles from New York City. The Hudson Hills and Highlands is twice the size of New York’s more widely known Catskill Park, and nearly five times larger than the nearby 100,000-acre Palisades Interstate Park. Teatown Lake Reservation, located just south of the geographic center of the Hudson Hills and Highlands, focuses its conservation efforts on saving nature and inspiring sustainable living throughout this ecologically significant bioregion.

Looking south from Breakneck Ridge, Putnam County, NY

Looking south from Breakneck Ridge, Putnam County, NY (Photo by F. Koontz)

Unknown to many local residents, the Hudson Hills and Highlands contains significant natural areas and provides habitat for both nationally and globally rare plants and animals. A unique mixture of New England, Mid-Atlantic, and Mid-West flora and fauna live here. The region contains the widest and deepest part of the Hudson River, and is home to a rich variety of aquatic life found only in estuaries, brackish waters where rivers meet the sea.

The number of species living in  the Hudson Hills and Highlands, includes: 1,300 plants; 250 birds; 150 fish; 45 mammals; 20 reptiles; 20 amphibians; 100 dragonflies and damselflies; many hundreds of other insects and invertebrates; and thousands of kinds of algae, bacteria, and fungi. Many people are surprised to learn that the region is home to black bears, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, fishers, timber rattlesnakes, turkeys, bald eagles, barred owls, and other species usually associated with American wilderness. This species diversity is especially surprising considering our proximity to New York City and its 12 million inhabitants. Also, poorly appreciated are the ecological services that our rich biodiversity provides; the air, water, food, and the natural materials that both fuels our economies and provides for our health and well-being, ultimately come from nature.

Thinking of our Region as a Living System

The protected natural areas of the Hudson Hills and Highlands, about 20% of the region, are located within a much larger matrix of human-developed environments (residential, business, transportation, and government areas). Our hope at Teatown is for the region to thrive as one healthy system. We envision a mosaic of natural and human-use areas proactively managed as one functioning ecosystem that allows people to benefit from nature’s ecological benefits. Such  holistic ecosystems are called “social-ecological systems” by academics, and they especially emphasize in their explanations that humans and other species are all part of the same system. In other words, humans are part of nature, not separate from her.

A growing number of ecological health proponents are promoting this social-ecological conceptual framework as an educational prerequisite for inspiring the public to create sustainable communities. By “sustainable,” we mean using our environmental resources to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. At Teatown, we use the terms “living landscape” or “bioscape” to convey the same idea — that is, that our region, when taken as a whole, is a complex social-ecological system best thought of as one living entity.

Protecting the Living Landscape for Sustainability and Resilience

While nature in the Hudson Hills and Highlands is relatively healthy, it is facing increasing threat from: (1) habitat loss from land development; (2) non-native, invasive species and emerging diseases; (3) overabundant species (e.g. deer and geese); (4) pollution; (5) climate change; and (6) human population pressures. Poorly designed development within the context of climate change is especially important. Between 2006 and 2015, the Hudson Hills and Highlands is expected to have 65,000 new residents living in 20,000 additional households. That equates to an additional 70 persons per square mile in addition to the current 839 already living here. Imagine 25,000 more cars traveling our roadways each morning and needing 1,000 additional classrooms in our schools.

Two new Hudson Hills and Highlands programs at Teatown with a living landscape focus are the  Environmental Leaders Learning Alliance (ELLA) and Community Trails Program. ELLA ( is a group of >120 town-appointed environmental commission members from 34 regional towns and villages, who meet quarterly at workshops, and more frequently through the Internet, to discuss environmental issues, share lessons learned, and formulate regional solutions for sustainability. The Community Trails Program is a joint effort with the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference ( to facilitate volunteer-led stewardship of recreational trails in Westchester and Putnam counties. This effort includes building new trails, especially longer distance trails that connect protected lands, effectively creating biotic corridors across the landscape. This fall, for example, we are building a 4-mile connector trail between Teatown and Kitchawan Park with the help of trail volunteers. 

A living landscapes approach to sustainable living requires all of us to be more mindful of our actions, including how we care for nature “between the parks,” on our own properties. To protect our region’s quality of life, we need much greater adult and youth involvement in protecting nature. To meet this need, Teatown is guiding residents toward a fuller understanding of the role that nature plays in sustainable living by facilitating dialogue, delivering education, promoting habitat protection, and providing biodiversity conservation services to local municipalities. Our immediate intent is to empower individuals and communities to participate in nature conservation for sustainable living. Our longer-term goal is to help residents of the Hudson Hills and Highlands design and manage a sustainable bioregion — as a social-ecological system with the resilience to adapt to the changing environmental and social conditions that the future will inevitably bring. 

Together we can make a difference!


Note:  This article first appeared  in Teatown Lake Reservation’s Fall 2009 Trails Newsletter. 

Posted by: teatown | August 9, 2009

Monarch Butterflies

Monarch’s Incredible Migration About to Begin!


Male Monarch, Cape May, NJ (by Fred Koontz).

Each year, between August and November, we need only look skyward to witness one of nature’s most incredible migrations. Tens of millions of Monarch butterflies that spend the summer east of the Rocky Mountains fly to Central Mexico. Here, about 70 miles west of Mexico City, Monarchs survive the winter in 12  mountaintop fir forests at 10,000 feet elevation.

The Monarch is the only butterfly that migrates north and south very long distances as many birds do. This unique annual pilgrimage was only recently discovered, in 1975. Conservationists have worked ever since to protect this natural spectacle of evolution and adaptation, which depends both on protecting ecological health in the USA and conserving the relatively small land area in Mexico where all  of our eastern Monarchs spend the winter (except for a small additional population in Florida).

The Monarch’s journey is even more amazing when you understand the details of their “multi-generation” migration cycle. Unlike migratory birds, no single Monarch makes the entire round trip because their normal eight-week lifespan is too short. The Monarchs that overwinter in Mexico do not reproduce until after they start heading north, usually reaching Texas and Oklahoma, sometime in February and March. Their offspring (“second generation”) continue heading north throughout their two month life, as do the third and fourth generations, each generation making it further north until they reach northern USA and Canada. Millions and millions of Monarchs are produced along the journey north.  As fall and cold weather approaches, the last generation of the summer enters into a special non-reproductive phase, which allows these individuals to live seven months, or more. It is these longer living, fourth generation Monarchs that return to Mexico to repeat the cycle. The mystery to scientists is how do these butterflies separated by three generations know how to return to the same 12 mountaintops in Mexico! 

The female Monarchs lay their eggs on a variety of milkweeds, whose leaves the caterpillars feed on for two weeks after hatching from a four-day incubation period. Next, after a two-week pupal stage, the adult emerges from its chrysalis. The adults feed on nectar from milkweeds, butterfly weed, golden rods, and other plants.  If you wish to attract Monarchs to your property planting milkweeds is the best idea, as it feeds both adults and caterpillars.  You can easily learn to recognize the eggs, caterpillars, and chrysalis on the milkweed plants. Look for them!

Of the 142 species of butterflies that live in New York State, the Monarch is my favorite. So, it is disappointing to me that there seems to be very few this summer at Teatown or in the Hudson Hills and Highlands?  Leave a comment below if you have noticed the same paucity of Monarchs this summer and share your observations about  migrating Monarchs. Who will be the first to spot a migrating Monarch this season?

Now that August is here, I will be keeping an eye to the sky for Monarchs. You can tell when they are migrating (as opposed to flying for nectar or mating), because they seem to be moving in a purposeful straight path.  Also, if you follow a migrating Monarch toward sunset  – and if you are lucky – you might discover a roosting tree with dozens, even hundreds, of resting butterflies. If you want to learn more about Monarchs and follow a citizen-scientist project to track their migration visit the Journey North and Monarch Watch websites.  Better yet, take your family on a trip to Cape May, New Jersey, in September and October to witness thousands of these winged jewels heading south. Enjoy the Monarch migration — it is a miracle that unfolds each year right before our eyes!



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