In the 50 years since the first Earth Day we have made tremendous progress protecting our air, water, and natural resources. But in spite of that progress we now face our greatest environmental crisis—climate change.
Nearly every day we hear stories about the effects of climate change, such as melting glaciers in Greenland, horrific wildfires in Australia and California, and supercharged hurricanes. While many of these events are far away, we are also seeing climate change impacts here in Pennsylvania.
Recognizing the Impacts
Since the early 20th century, the commonwealth’s average temperature has increased more than 1.8F, with an even greater rise in winter temperatures. The amount, timing, and intensity of precipitation also changed. We receive about 10 percent more precipitation annually, with the greatest increase during winter as rain. The intensity of our rain events has also changed, with a 71 percent increase in very heavy rain events. These changes impact our state parks and forests.
Infrastructure damage from flooding has increased substantially, leading to washed out roads and trails and structural damage to buildings. Loyalsock State Forest experienced two 500-year storm events in a five-year period resulting in $13 million in damages. Other impacts include wind damage and infrastructure damage and loss of recreational opportunities at Presque Isle due to historically high-water levels in Lake Erie.
The natural world is also being affected by climate change. Our growing season is 10 days longer than it was during the mid-20th century, and while that might be good for your vegetable garden, it’s leading to an increase in frost damage to forests that bud early during later winter warm spells. Animals are responding, too. The timing of bird migrations, for example, is shifting, and in the case of red-tailed hawks, many no longer migrate because food is available year-round.
To help ensure that our parks and forests remain resilient in the face of climate change, DCNR developed a climate change\adaptation and mitigation plan. The plan identifies 46 climate change vulnerabilities ranging from the loss of species and the introduction of new invasive species, to increased wildfire risk and the loss of winter recreational opportunities. To address those vulnerabilities, more than 200 adaptation actions related to infrastructure, recreation, and conservation were identified.
The department designs and maintains a broad array of infrastructure including 4,877 buildings, 870 bridges, 133 dams, and innumerable miles of roads and trails. Consequently, the plan contains many recommendations for making infrastructure more resilient, including ways to avoid flooding and redesigning culverts and modifying dam spillways to accommodate heavier
Climate change is also affecting outdoor recreation in Pennsylvania. The summer recreation season is longer than it used to be, and warmer, rainier winters have reduced or eliminated traditional winter recreation such as cross-country skiing and ice fishing in many parts of the state. To balance recreational demand with resource protection DCNR is looking at recreational sustainability and resource carrying capacity.
Our state parks and forests are key pieces in the system of interconnected habitats that plants and animals use to migrate to the north and higher elevations as the climate changes. DCNR is currently working to identify the state’s key migration corridors to direct conservation dollars to preserving the missing links through acquisition, easements, and support of land conservation.
The department is also working to mitigate climate change by reducing carbon emissions and removing carbon from the atmosphere. To date, DCNR has installed 16 solar arrays in state parks and forests with a combined energy production of 365kW. By the end of 2020, that will increase to 1,665kW with 11 new projects expected to be completed. Ultimately, DCNR plans to derive 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2022, reducing our carbon footprint by 3,548 tons/year.
DCNR is electrifying its fleet and installing electric vehicle charging stations. Since 2017, the department has replaced 23 of its vehicles with a mixture of fully electric and electric hybrid plug-in vehicles. Additionally, 19 electric vehicle charging stations have been installed in state park and forest locations to ensure guests can travel to and from our public lands without the anxiety of running out of a charge. By 2025, DCNR plans to have 25% of its fleet comprised of plug-in electric or hybrid vehicles and more than 40 electric vehicle public charging stations installed.
Recognizing that trees are a powerful natural solution to removing carbon from the atmosphere, DCNR is looking at ways to manage our forests to increase carbon sequestration. Collectively, Pennsylvania’s 16.8 million acres of forest store about 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon and sequester an additional 7 million each year. DCNR’s Bureau of Forestry is working to identify forest management strategies that simultaneously increase carbon uptake, forest health, and productivity.
It’s widely recognized that society’s actions over the next decade will determine how severe the long-term effects of climate change will be. As Pennsylvania’s conservation leader, DCNR remains committed to reducing emissions, managing resilient state parks and forests, and educating the public about climate change impacts and solutions.
Before joining DCNR, Greg Czarnecki worked on the executive staff of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, done consulting work for the U.S. EPA in Washington, and was director of The Nature Conservancy’s Science Office in Pennsylvania.
This blog post was originally a part of the EarthDayPA50.org website, created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in 2020. The website has since been retired but the sentiment – and our appreciation for our partners like Greg – go on!