photograph by Nancie Battaglia

What’s the future of Adirondack winters? The writing’s on the wall

Just as parents measure
their children’s height over the years, marking it with a notch and a date in a doorway, Pete McConville measures the ice on Upper St. Regis Lake. He notes the dates of ice-in and ice-out on the cabinet door of his woodshop, a ritual he’s performed since 1990 as the caretaker at Camp Woodmere.

McConville continued the record-keeping from his predecessor, but it’s become more than just a weather log. He’s also noted when the loons came back from their migration, when his father died, or when the Twin Towers fell. “It’s just like a story pole for me,” he said.

But those dates—marking when the lake’s middle is frozen and when McConville can take a boat from the landing to the camp—also represent decades of data about a piece of the Adirondack Park and how it is impacted by climate change.

The average global temperature has increased nearly 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, according to the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. A United Nations climate change report published in October details the disastrous consequences expected if people do not limit the global temperature increase to between 2.7 to 3.6 degrees (1.5 to two degrees Celsius).

But the rate of warming varies significantly from place to place, and SUNY Plattsburgh professor Eric Leibensperger said the Adirondacks and this region of the world have already passed that mark. Leibensperger and his students analyzed temperature data from Indian Lake, Lake Placid, Dannemora, Tupper Lake and Wanakena from the NASA institute to get a more local picture. It showed that the Adirondacks is warming faster, picking up about 3.5 degrees since 1900.

People like McConville are noticing the effects.

Summers are more humid. Migrating Canada geese are arriving at the lake later than before. Deer-hunting season feels warmer. Winters aren’t as severe. There aren’t as many barn and tree swallows, which used to be a pain for McConville because they’d poop on everything. But he misses them now, their iconic dips and dives as they snatched up bugs over the lake, “like fighter jets.”

Curt Stager, a professor of natural sciences at Paul Smith’s College, says many Adirondack residents are documenting changes in their backyards. According to Stager, a friend of his was sifting through items in her cabin’s attic on Cranberry Lake when she stumbled across an old diary, kept from June 1959 to March 1991. Twice a day the writer noted the weather, temperature and other facts of nature. After students reviewed the notebook, they discovered an increase in the number of thunderstorms as the temperature got warmer—“just like you would expect,” Stager said.

These types of observations can hu­manize temperature data in a way that translates to the average person. Though the numbers on the woodshop door don’t plot a simple uphill climb in temperatures, McConville can see that they have become less consistent.

Stager has also been collecting ice data on the area’s lakes, noting that records on Lower St. Regis Lake go back to 1909, Lake Placid to 1920 and Mirror Lake to 1903.

Researchers consider ice-in and -out records a useful form of citizen science, whatever the motivation for keeping them. When he came to Paul Smiths in 1987, Stager said people bet on when the lake iced in or iced out. Many Adirondack communities still award prizes for correctly guessing when an object placed in the middle of the ice will fall into the water. It’s a celebration marking the unofficial end of winter.

“The great thing about that is, if it’s a community experience and there’s money involved, people are very careful about recording the date properly, which is good because then they keep the record,” Stager said.

Having reviewed these decades and decades of data, in most cases Stager has found that lakes are freezing later and opening up earlier. In other words, winters are getting shorter. “Winter as we know it in the Adirondacks is going to go away,” he said. “Not in our lifetimes, but we’ll see it in process, and we’ll have played a role in making that happen, which of course not everyone wants to admit.”

Eventually the Adirondack climate will be much like the Blue Ridge Mountains down south, Stager said. While that might seem nice to some, many of the things that make the Adirondacks what it is—ice skating, ice fishing, snowmobiling, skiing, neighbors helping each other in a blizzard—could go away.

For now, the story on McConville’s woodshop cabinet door is still being written. How it ends is up to all of us.

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