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In New York, when you leave your apartment, you’re usually leaving for the whole day — but if you packed up to go out and about yesterday, you may have faced a conundrum. Temperatures veered from a high of 67°F to a nighttime low of 36°F, leaving many urbanites sweating through their parkas or shivering as they exited Broadway theaters. 

The sun rises on Earth Day in 2021 behind the skyline of lower Manhattan. Photo by Gary Hershorn

“You may think about this winter in particular as being sort of normal for the Northeast — but globally, January, according to the NOAA, was the sixth warmest since they began keeping global records, and that goes back to the end of the 19th century,” said Peter Girard, Director of Communications at Climate Central, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to communicating climate science to the public. “It may be warm today or cold tomorrow, but if you look at the broader data sets, inevitably you’ll see warming trends,”

Girard explained that while changes in daily weather are relatively common: “You’ll always have swings and anomalies in weather, and this certainly counts,” changes in climate (including the degradation of permafrost in the Arctic) can have a more permanent impact on local weather. “It’s likely to be true that you’ve got really different behavior in the Arctic right now, largely prompted by global warming, and that absolutely has an effect on anomalous temperatures, like what you’re seeing in New York today,” he said. “But even as the climate warms and temperatures like today become more and more normal, you’ll still see cold weather and you’ll still see erratic patterns on a day-to-day basis and from place to place.” 

NYC weather varies on a day-to-day basis and also place-to-place, with hyperlocal thunderstorms or sudden changes in temperature (10th Ave wind tunnel, anyone?!). While Climate Central doesn’t report specifically on hyperlocal weather events, they extensively study city-specific phenomena like Urban Heat islands, in which highly-developed areas can be as much as 15-20° hotter than surrounding areas due to impermeable surfaces, a lack of greenery and trees, building height, and heat created by human activities. New York is among the five most intense urban heat islands in the US, along with Newark, NJ, New Orleans, Houston, and San Francisco. 

The effects of the urban heat island and other variations in weather can be mitigated by the existence of green spaces and waterways, of which Hell’s Kitchen is fortunate to have in Hudson River Park. “On the West Side, the Hudson River is clearly an influence on temperature differences that you would expect to see in New York on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis,” said Girard. “You would expect a body of water like that to have a cooling influence on neighborhoods, particularly where prevailing wind might cool the otherwise hot summer. And similarly along the Hudson, you’ve got green spaces where in many parts of the city you don’t — and that’s a contributing factor to that urban heat island effect,” he added. 

While Hell’s Kitchen residents may be optimistic regarding the neighborhood’s cooling elements, many are concerned about the overall effects of climate change and rising sea levels. Climate Central documents these risks in detail in an interactive map detailing local tide levels and projections for at-risk coastlines that could be below flood-level by 2050. Girard emphasized: “Virtually anything that people can do individually or in groups, or ideally, at the government level to reduce emissions will both help mitigate these forces and buy more time to adapt to them. Reducing emissions as quickly and as soon as possible will both reduce the ultimate effects, the ultimate sea levels and other impacts of climate change, but it will also slow down warming and essentially buy more time to keep people safe and protect communities.”

Wondering where to start? Check out the community compost program at Hudson River Park (including a nifty new tracker to measure reduced emissions!) or one of the neighborhood’s sustainability-focused groups, like the HK Litter Legion or the HK Free Store

And for now, as Girard predicts that “anomalously hot days will become less and less uncommon, and cold days will become less and less common,” it might be a good idea to pack shorts and a jacket to prepare for more wily winter weather.

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