Are five-month summers in our future thanks to climate change?

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NEW YORK (PIX 11)- A five-month-long summer could be in Tri-State residents’ future, according to a variety of meteorological models.  Assuming they’re true, whether or not New Yorkers are prepared for the hazards associated with them is an open question.  So is the accuracy of the meteorological models.

Most weather professionals have been commenting in the last few weeks about a new study from the Columbia University Earth Institute that predicts a rise in

heat-related deaths in Manhattan in the years and decades ahead.  One specific finding of the study is that heat-related deaths in May and September are likely to rise exponentially as the century proceeds, and as the summers start to lengthen.

While that may be true, an expert on long-term forecasting, forensic meteorologist Thomas Downs of Weather2000.com in Manhattan, said that here on the East Coast the May heat-up is not expected to be nearly as great as it might become in landlocked parts of the U.S.

“You have the air conditioning of the Atlantic Ocean,” he said in an interview.  “That impacts the New York City area.”  He said that because May always follows the colder months of winter and spring, the ocean in our area will always be relatively cool for the duration of the fifth month of the year.  It, in turn, cools the air in our region.

However, Downs said, the same can’t be said for the Atlantic as the summer comes to an end.  Throughout the summer, the ocean warms up, which results in increased humidity in the air, as any city resident can attest.  That sticky, clammy city summer heat could end up staying in the air well past Labor Day as the planet warms, Downs said, and that could be hazardous.

“If we don’t cool down below 85 [degrees] at night,” said Downs, “that, combined with oppressive humidity, that’s worse than having to deal with high temperatures” during the day.

His observations were in response to the Columbia University study, which not only predicts an extension of summer, but also says that deaths related to that increased heat will rise alarmingly.  By the 2020s, the study concluded, if current general atmospheric conditions persist, heat-related deaths will rise by 20 percent. By the 2090s, that rate could rise by as much as 90 percent.

“The worst case scenario for New York is if we have a prolonged heat wave, where we have day after day of temperatures around 95 or 100 degrees,” said Radley Horton, the author of the Columbia study, in an interview with PIX11 News.  “The longer that goes on,” he said, “the more stress it puts on the body.”

Currently, the City of New York has plans in place to handle the sorts of heat emergencies we’ve been used to in the past, with cooling centers set up for children and older people, and “Beat The Heat” pamphlets that Department of Health and other city workers hand out at community centers.

But is the city — and the region, for that matter — actually prepared?  The answer is roughly the same as whether or not climatologists and meteorologists are completely accurate about climate change.  That answer is not necessarily an optimistic one.

“Global temperatures increased in 1998, and then flatlined, or [were] even decreasing some,” said Downs.  As evidence, he showed a chart on which he’d plotted average overall temperatures in the U.S. since 1998, when the general long-range climate forecast was for the country to keep heating up.  Instead, the temperature declined about 0.2 degrees.

That figure included 2012, which was the hottest year on record.  When it’s factored out of the equation, the overall average temperature drops almost a full degree.  Downs explained why.

“Just because climate scientists are predicting the whole globe to warm over the course of a century doesn’t mean we won’t have these cooling trends over the short term,” he said. “What we really need to do in order to understand the climate system is invest more money and more talent so that we understand the future weather systems and the future climate.”

He was clear that he does not doubt global warming.  However, he said that there is a lot about climate change that we don’t understand, and that learning more would help New Yorkers, and the world, prepare better for a warming planet.