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Friday, March 03, 2006

New York lakes getting less ice, group says

Report links trend to global warming
Misty EdgecombStaff writer
(March 2, 2006) — From the air, western New York is covered with islands of white snow. But the large lakes that shape this region's identity remain dark spots on the landscape.
Statewide, lakes are experiencing 10 fewer days of ice coverage than in past decades. And with 2006 the second-warmest January on record in New York, ice has been particularly late this winter, disrupting winter activities such as ice fishing and snowmobiling — and worrying environmentalists.
"Old Man Winter is becoming old man warmer," said Jason Babbie of the New York Public Interest Research Group, which released a report Wednesday linking ice data to global climate change.
Each of the 15 lakes included in the analysis offered at least a half-century of measurements, as maintained by the National Snow and Ice Data Center, based at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The center works with federal scientists and keeps records from several northern states, including New York.
The New York trend mirrors changes in freezing and thawing that scientists have observed throughout the Northern Hemisphere."This is yet another body of data — all pointing in the same direction. We need to take action now," said Peter Bauer of the Resident's Committee to Protect the Adirondacks.
About half of the lakes included in the analysis are located in the Adirondacks. Others, including Chautauqua, are farther west. Geography made no difference in ice cover. It was a lake's size that predicted whether the ice lingered.
Lake Ontario and the two deepest Finger Lakes — Seneca and Cayuga — never fully freeze in modern times. But in cold years, Lake Erie, Irondequoit Bay and the smaller Finger Lakes acquire a skin of ice.
Kenton Stewart, professor emeritus at the State University College at Buffalo, has studied these western New York lakes and has found data echoing the statewide findings. However, at least 40 years of measurements are necessary to confidently identify trends and ensure that changes aren't just the result of annual variations in weather, he said. Most of the measurements for local lakes go back no longer than 10 years.
Stewart was among the authors of an international study published in Science magazine in 2002 that was key to establishing seasonal ice cover on lakes as a means of measuring global climate change in places far from any glaciers.
Seasonal ice has been waning since the 16th century, with faster declines since about 1850, the study found. That translates to air temperatures rising by 2 degrees Fahrenheit every 100 years, the study said.
But beyond simply serving as a warning of climate changes to come, the loss of ice is already affecting New Yorkers, said Gary Coons, an ice fisherman from Buffalo.
"I haven't been out this year at all," said Coons, a member of Trout Unlimited.Abut 2.3 million Americans ice-fish on frozen lakes. Local fishing lore predicts that good ice cover, and thus, colder water, will ensure healthy populations of smelt and minnows — the species that popular sport fish such as salmon and trout rely upon for food, Coons said.
And traditionally, Native Americans have relied upon the ice, which provides winter travel routes for the wildlife they hunt and provides access to tribally owned islands in the St. Lawrence River, said Neil Patterson of Sanborn, Niagara County, who runs an environment program for the Tuscarora Nation.
"There's a whole aspect of ice culture that's not necessarily out there in the public eye," Patterson said.

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