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Could climate change cost WNY Lake Erie shoreline?

Could climate change cost WNY Lake Erie shoreline?

If global warming keeps soil from freezing, shoreline would be more vulnerable to erosion by wave.

With climate change, some 200 feet of Lake Erie shoreline could erode in southern Ontario over the next 50 years because of stronger waves, a new Canadian study warns.

Could the same happen along Western New York shores?

“Well, obviously, you’d have wave action that can do some damage,” said Don Owens, a retired soil surveyor from Cornell University. “If the lake doesn’t freeze, you are more susceptible to higher waves and more erosion.”

A preliminary report by the Chatham-Kent municipality for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry in Canada shows that land around Lake Erie could slip into the lake to the tune of 200 feet over the next 50 years and more than double that over the next century as the result of a warmer climate.

“The technical information that will be learned from this work will be applicable for all of Lake Erie,” said Peter Zuzek, whose Ontario firm led a consulting team for the shoreline study. “One of the trends that’s already playing out – and will continue to be played out – is the reduction of ice cover on the lake.”

A warmer climate would keep Lake Erie free of ice more often.

Less ice cover in the winter and early spring leaves the shoreline susceptible to being battered during storms, especially the harshest ones that strike Ontario, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York State.

“Less winter ice means more exposure to coastal storms, leading to more flooding and erosion events in the winter,” Zuzek said. “This is contrasted with the cold decades of the 1970s and 1980s when Lake Erie would freeze for three or four months solid.”

What's more, Owens added, “in the winter, the waves seem to be taller. So, you have more power.”

Wind and waves drive erosion.

“Ice on Lake Erie has the effect of calming the waters,” said Stephen Vermette, a SUNY Buffalo State climatologist. “In our warming world, the area of ice cover on Lake Erie has decreased over the years, and the date of ‘last ice’ is arriving earlier in the spring. As a result, the ability for winds to churn up the water will likely increase with the warming, increasing shoreline erosion due to increased winter wave action.”