Watching From Afar

Ben Noll (Photo provided)

Ben Noll (Photo provided)

Meteorologist tracks Highlands from other side of world

Meteorologist Ben Noll grew up in Orange County before taking a job with New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research. Despite living on the other side of the world, he forecasts the weather in the Highlands and Hudson Valley at and in his Substack newsletter at 

Earlier this month you launched a Climate Change Dashboard for the Hudson Valley. Why now?
It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time; it’s a resource that is lacking for a lot of regions. For a meteorologist, climate change is part of our day job. We live in a warming world. That’s not debatable. We need to be more aware of some of the things that we’re likely to experience. Change has always happened in the Earth’s climate, but it’s obvious that we’re playing a role now.

You noted on July 8 that because the temperature is getting hotter in the Hudson Valley, the atmosphere will be able to hold more moisture, which will increase the likelihood of major rainstorms and flash floods. And the next day we got flooded.
It’s crazy. And when you take those same sets of meteorological conditions that caused the flooding, and you run that 10, 20, 50 years into the future with an even warmer atmosphere, with everything else being equal, we’d expect even more rain than what occurred. As the temperature continues to rise, the atmosphere’s moisture-holding capacity continues to rise. Based upon that, we’d expect more rain half a century down the line than what happened on July 9. 

What are some of the other ways in which climate change is affecting the Hudson Valley?
The temperature is the most obvious. That comes with a compression of the winter season. You’re having fewer cold extremes, and you’re getting warmer earlier while getting colder later. You’re squeezing the winter and seeing summer expand out. That may increase the growing season, and there will be fewer frosty days with time. The Hudson Valley climate is becoming more like a climate that you find in the mid-Atlantic. You’re shifting that latitude band down south a little bit, so the Hudson Valley’s becoming more like Baltimore or Washington, D.C. 

I broke it down into month-by-month trends. With temperature, it’s trending warmer in every single month of the year. But I thought it was interesting to see that the winter is the season that has the strongest warming trend in the Hudson Valley, which doesn’t bode well for a guy like me who loves snow.

So temperature change is the biggest trend. The moisture trend is probably No. 2. Although the atmosphere has a higher moisture content, that doesn’t necessarily mean that every single year is going to be progressively wetter. There are other natural drivers that sit in Mother Nature’s edging room that are squeezing moisture out of the clouds. In one particular year those drivers might be encouraging more high pressure, which means that, although there may be more moisture up there, it’s not coming down. So annual rainfall still shows a lot of variability. 

However, in terms of extremes — like we’ve seen with the hurricanes in the last couple of years that have brought flash flooding, or the extreme thunderstorms and how much moisture is in the atmosphere that we can wring out — that’s where you’re going to see the record totals being hit more routinely and more easily. There’s also humidity. I’m not seeing any sharp jumps over the last six decades; it’s more like a gentle upward trend, and some recent years have been among the most humid, such as 2018 and 2020.

With snowfall, the last couple of decades we’ve seen a general downward trend. It’s a interesting one because snowfall is still inherently variable. Let’s say we have a big storm system coming up the East Coast, a  nor’easter. There’s more moisture available for it than it would otherwise have. And if it’s just cold enough for it to snow, then you can still have a blizzard. But we’re sitting closer to that fine line of being cold enough for snow, or changing to have a wintry mix and then going to rain. 

With rising temperatures, that rain/snow line is going to sit farther inland, which is going to push the snow up the mountains. Down in the Hudson Valley, especially those towns on the river that are subject to the effects of maritime air from the Atlantic, and the Hudson running warmer, that could also be an issue. We saw it last winter, where it may have snowed inland or in higher elevations away from the river. But in those towns right along the river’s edge, it was a real struggle to get it to be frozen precipitation.

That doesn’t mean that we won’t have big snowfalls. When it happens, I know people are going to say: “You said climate change was going to end this, but we’ve gotten a lot of snow this year.” But it’s about the big picture. It’s about what it’s looked like over the last couple of decades, and that broader trend, rather than year-to-year variability. 

What should Hudson Valley towns be doing to prepare for these changes?
This is where the rubber meets the road. My area of expertise is going through the data, picking out the signals from the noise and doing the forecasting. I would say that, using what we saw on July 9 as an example, and the eroding of the road networks, you need to build back stronger. Build back things that are going to be more resilient to extremes: the hotter temperatures, the more extreme rainfall. Maybe the snow part is a bit of good news; the roads won’t get as beat up over the winter. But we need resiliency, which may mean higher costs, but those things will be hopefully serving you long into the future, toward the end of the century.

Is it hard to forecast the weather for a place where you no longer live?
Nowadays, you can forecast for anywhere on the globe, as long as you have an internet connection. I look at weather station information, forecast model information and satellite information. That’s all online. Where it gets tough is when you’re in a storm situation, and it’s unfolding in real time and you don’t have your eyes on the ground. That’s where social media comes in; that’s my virtual look. Over the years, when I’ve come back to the region for a couple of weeks, the forecasting is inherently easier because I’m there and experiencing the conditions. 

New Zealand has a reputation as a place that’s going to be “safe” from climate change, so billionaires are buying land and building bunkers. Will it be safe?
No! That thing with people building bunkers down here started because there was research that showed that if there were a nuclear war, we’d be the least susceptible to the ill effects because we’re in the Southern Hemisphere and the air flows from that are unlikely to bleed south here. But in terms of climate change, that narrative has been flipped on its head. We’re a small island in the middle of the South Pacific. The ocean is a huge part of the economy and our way of life here. We’ve had a bunch of marine heat waves. Our coastal waters have run anywhere from 4 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average. 

With those heat waves, we started to see tropical fish migrating southward. Fish that wouldn’t normally be here are moving here and driving some of the local species out of their natural environments. We saw penguin mortality. That’s not something you think of in the Northern Hemisphere, but we’re close to Antarctica and we do have penguins. In the summer they feed on and near our coasts; they’re looking for fish. But because the marine heat wave was making our coastal waters so warm, the fish they eat are seeking deeper, colder waters, so the penguins were having to swim farther out to sea. That activity was leading them to become thin, and then they were getting hypothermia as a result of a warming climate. 

We’ve also had tropical cyclones and hurricanes. Last year we had a number of humongous floods. We had over 20 inches of rain in a month. I see a close parallel to what has happened in the Hudson Valley this month.

There are no climate havens. No one is immune to the effects of extreme weather. We’re continuing to warm the globe. But the quicker we make the changes that we need to make … well, at this point we can’t avoid all the extreme events. But we can choose a more tolerable level of extremes. It’s the lesser of multiple evils.

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