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How Climate Change Affects the Hudson Valley

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Cover photo by Emma Denes

The Hudson Valley and its river are home to remarkable animals, plants, ecosystems, and people—but climate change poses a major threat.

In and of itself, the Hudson Valley is a force of nature. From the forests to the Hudson River, the region’s natural beauty has always been the center of attention. But a force of human nature—also known as climate change—threatens to alter the landscape in irreversible ways. 

hudson river

Photo by Emma Denes

Since 1880, the Earth has warmed by about 1.8°F. That number is expected to keep rising. The increase in temperature is due to the greenhouse effect, a process that occurs when greenhouse gasses, such as carbon dioxide and methane, trap the Sun’s heat in our atmosphere. 

Life on Earth would not exist without greenhouse gasses, but due to our expanded energy demands and dependence on fossil fuels—such as oil and natural gas—we’re living with too much of a good thing.

 

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In New York, the average annual temperature has risen by over 2°F since the 1970s, heightening the risk of heat waves, air pollution, and pollen density. On top of that, invasive species like the Southern pine beetle and the emerald ash borer have already made their way to the state in response to the heat.

“As the climate changes, the balances in the ecosystem get thrown off, and there’s lots of cascading impacts,” says Pia Ruisi-Besares, the director of science, climate, and stewardship at Scenic Hudson

 

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The Hudson River has long carried the burden of the climate crisis. According to Warning Signs, the Hudson River Maritime Museum’s climate change exhibit, the Hudson Valley’s temperature has climbed by 3.9°F over the last 100 years, and the average winter temperature of the Hudson River has increased by 4°F over the same time period. 

“People often think of it as a singular river,” says Tracy Brown, President and Hudson Riverkeeper, “but it’s actually a system of rivers with all the tributaries, and it’s really becoming quite fragile, the life and the river, due to this.”

 

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As water temperatures increase, oxygen levels decrease, resulting in an adverse effect on the river’s local species, particularly fish. Numbers of Atlantic tomcod have declined significantly, while rainbow smelt were last seen in the Hudson in 1988. 

A warming river also creates an advanced risk of harmful algal blooms (HABs). According to Stuart Findlay, Senior Scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, HABs occur when blue-green bacteria flourish in warm water, producing toxins that pose severe health risks to both humans and animals. “It’s a general thing we see on the horizon, and being as prepared as possible would be a very wise thing to do,” Findlay says. 

climate change hudson river

As ice melts at unprecedented rates across the globe, the ocean rises—as do tidal rivers, such as the Hudson. / Photo by Emma Denes

Aside from warming temperatures, sea level rise is also a major issue for the Hudson Valley. Since the Hudson River is connected to the ocean, it ebbs and flows with the tides—including when those tides rise due to increased ice melting and thermal expansion of the water.

In the Mid-Hudson region, the river is predicted to rise almost six feet by the year 2100, meaning that thousands of people and homes—as well as numerous communities and riverfront ecosystems—will be affected. 

As the sea level rises, so does the salt content of the river. Since environmental justice communities rely on the Hudson for fresh drinking water, even a slight increase in salty water will result in corroded pipes and a breakdown in the water treatment system.

As Ruisi-Besares emphasizes, much of the Valley’s local infrastructure has been built alongside the river because it is more convenient for transportation purposes. Of course, many residents prefer to live closer to the shoreline. But strategic retreat of private properties and public infrastructure will have to be a part of the solution, including—potentially—the Metro-North Railroad.

“It does really help for communities like that, to have partners like Riverkeeper, to help amplify that message,” says Brown. “And also to help anticipate, with our scientists-on-staff, some things that we know are coming that aren’t really on people’s radar yet.”

Via the Hudson River Estuary Action Agenda, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation aims to engage at least 10,000 people in river and watershed education by 2025. Engaging diverse communities is a significant piece of the puzzle. “They’ve tried very hard to spread the advice more equitably and get the money where they really haven’t seen it in the past,” says Findlay. 

 

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With the recent news about the climate agenda stalled on the federal level, it is easy to think that sweeping change is no longer a viable option to take better care of the planet. But at least in New York, the public’s engagement with state government and regional communities is still pronounced. 

For instance, in November, state voters will have the chance to approve the Environmental Bond Act. If passed, this major piece of legislation would set aside over four billion dollars of funding to mitigate climate change, improve water quality, conserve open space, and support environmental justice communities. 

 

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In fact, the Hudson Valley is emerging as a leader in the state’s climate change efforts. Over 120 municipalities are already designated as Climate Smart Communities, and the Hudson River Flood Resilience Network has investigated climate adaptive designs for several waterfront communities, including Kingston and Piermont. 

“These designs anticipate changes over time and instead of fighting against those, it allows the waterfront to adapt as it starts to look different in a planned way,” Ruisi-Besares says.

hudson river museum

Visitors to the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston can learn about climate change in the Hudson Valley at the interactive exhibit Warning Signs, which opened in 2021. / Photo by Emma Denes

In addition, research efforts are contributing a great deal of knowledge to climate change efforts. Findlay is involved with the Hudson River Environmental Conditions Observing System, a monitoring network that uses sensors placed along the Hudson River, as well as the Mohawk River, to record real-time data, such as water temperature and salinity. 

 

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And this year, Scenic Hudson will be conducting a forest inventory of its parkland—about 9,000 acres—in an effort to inform communities of management actions they can undertake.

“We’re going to start thinking about how to demonstrate the best way to mitigate for risk in climate change, how to build resilient forests back, and how to think about sequestering carbon through forest management,” Ruisi-Besares says.

While systematic change is necessary, individuals can play an important role in climate mitigation, especially when it comes to using less energy. Whether that means turning off the lights when not in a room or purchasing an electric vehicle, any effort can help.

 

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Hudson Valley residents have plenty of ways to become further involved, whether that means planting trees along Hudson estuary streams, donating to local nonprofit organizations such as Riverkeeper and Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, or just appreciating time in one of the region’s many parks. And as Findlay says, most people living in the Valley feel strongly about the Hudson River and its communities, and optimism has to lead the way no matter what.

 

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“As a resident of this beautiful valley, it inspires you, and it nurtures you,” says Brown. “And when something nurtures you, you want to protect it. It’s just a natural relationship.”

Related: These Hudson Valley Communities Earned “Climate Smart” Certifications

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