Summer 2021 was different in New York than past summers. It wasn’t the relentless brutal heat that we’d experienced the last few years. The heat that finally drove my parents in Vermont to install air conditioning.
That was constant and oppressive, but not acute. You did kind of adapt to it. You learn that the Walkway Over the Hudson opens their gates at 7am, so 6:30am is the earliest bike ride you can take to see the Hudson in the morning before the heat and humidity makes the return climb on the bike just too much. It meant that if it was too humid, maybe a walk at 6am was a better option, back in by 7, then buttoned up in AC the rest of the day. It was definitely climate change, but it onset slow enough through May and June that it felt just like some new normal.
This summer was different. It was acute. The first big hit was a rainstorm in the middle of July. The rains were different this summer. There were almost no rainy days. Only rainy minutes. The bursts would come as a quarter or half inch of rain, in 20 or 30 minutes, then pass. Sometimes with a rainbow on the other side. The rainstorm in July was hard, but not that notable compared to the rest. Except, the watershed is wide. Many of our local streams are fed from tends of miles away in every direction. And the Sprout Creek had more than it could handle.
Our daughter was in camp at the park this July. Finally signed up for swimming lessons. And the lake was now closed. It’s still feels incredible to say “climate change cancelled my daughter’s swim lessons.” And just when that was starting to sink in, the second shot.
The Bootleg fire, and the fires raging across western Canada, brought their smoke to NY. I went out for a morning ride on the 19th, and the Sun was definitely the wrong color. It rose as a deep eerie red, both striking and horrifying at the same time. The Sun was weak on the ride. The air cooler than it should have been. It made me think of the 1816 year without summer, or what a future attempt to dim the Sun to address the deadly heat might feel like.
The wildfires and volcanoes of elsewhere have always brought colorful sunsets to the North East, but this time was different. The smoke came down. Sitting on our porch eating dinner that night, I smelled a campfire. Folks in the neighborhood have them all the time. But this time I checked the air quality, and realized, to my shock that I wasn’t smelling a backyard marshmallow roast. This was old forests, 3000 miles away. Forests that were part of carbon offset payments.
The next day my wife started complaining of a headache. I looked, and the AQI was 180 outside where she’d spent the afternoon. And a new habit was formed. Check the AQI every morning when I wake up. Was it healthy enough to go ride a bike. We’ve now got our own Purple Air sensor to help map out this new risk to our region. The wildfires of far that now burn so big, so hot, that they can blanket the entire US in smoke. The world literally on fire.
When Henri formed as a storm, I watched closely. We were predicted for 4 – 6 inches of rain, which I knew would be devastating, having seen Irene and Sandy’s impacts to the region. But modeling rainfall is notoriously hard, and we only saw about 2.5 inches over 2 days. The rivers swelled, but stayed in their banks. The rivers were now high, springtime high, but not dangerous on their own.
We had a interlude. A kid’s birthday party, outside on the Hudson River. Next to the freight rail, which 5 big trains passed us while we were there. I was talking with a friend about climate change and the Hudson River. People forget it’s tidal. That the ocean pushes up it twice a day. It changes direction 4 times a day. And that sea level rise will come for it. I pointed out how exposed the MTA Hudson Line is to sea level rise. To the south it’s barely 2 feet above current high tide. 2 feet of sea level rise, which with no real climate action, will happen within 30 years. Aggressive action might give us a century. And what will this region look like when that train is gone. Pre-covid, those commuter trains were full all the time. The growth of Beacon and Poughkeepsie has been fueled by easy access to New York City. It represents a huge amount of the money flowing into the economy.
And then Ida. The meteorologists were right, Ida should not have taken us by surprise. They wrote the warning for the storm before it had a name, 5 days out. They gave the North East 48 hrs notice of catastrophic flooding possibilities. They couldn’t have done a better job. But people can only hear things that they believe are possible. Their imagination is shaped by what they saw before. When I mentioned to my wife that Weather Underground thought we were going to get 3.5 inches of rain, she said, I hope not. It can be wrong for sure. But they always thought Henri was a 2 inch event for us.
The rains came. Steady at first. And building. And when it was all said and done over 5 inches had fallen here in less than 24 hours. On top of the saturated ground. This time the rivers did not stay put. It took the whole of a sunny day after the storm for with Wappingers creek to crest, and it’s still receding. Areas remain under water, there is no where for the water to go.
Freedom Lake is gone again. This didn’t surprise us. After going 7 years between flood induced rebuilds, this time it was 7 weeks. They’ll have the whole off season to fix it. But for how long?
But the real surprise. The one we weren’t expecting. The trains are stopped.
Riding across the Walkway over the Hudson seeing a silent Poughkeepsie Train station was bizarre. The MTA is working on it, trying to find a way to repair enough for limited service on those lines. It also means Amtrak for Albany to NYC is shuttered until further notice. And there were no freight trains on the CSX rails on the West side of the river yesterday.
Labor day brings the unofficial end of summer. The temperature, humidity, and air quality have all dropped back to extremely pleasant.
But we are only half way through Hurricane season. The ground is saturated, there is no where for more water to go. And we are still in a Pandemic.
Many parts of the world have been living this kind of climate emergency for years. Disaster after disaster, no breathing space between them. We can’t rebuild from climate disasters fast enough. Our town’s park budget is broken, because of Climate Change. And this isn’t a new normal. As we continue to burn fossil fuels, this gets worse every year. This will be “one of the good years” when we look back from mid century. It’s why we have to do everything we can to transform our society away from extraction of dirty fuels, and to something far more collaborative and cleaner. This is a special time in history where the future will really be decided over the next few years. Not many people have the chance to live in a moment in history where this much change is possible. It’s a brutal responsibility, but one that if you embrace you’ll look back knowing you did what you could to really shape the future for the better.