COLUMBIANA, Ohio – Joe Glista, winemaker and brewmaster at The Vineyards At Pine Lake in Beaver Township, strolls along an aisle of gnarled grape vines ready for pruning. By late September, the vines will be lush with large, green leaves and ripe grapes for harvest.
The challenge for harvest time in northeastern Ohio is that it coincides with hurricane and tropical storm seasons that sweep in from the south and east. They have become more intense over the last two decades.
As these storms move inland from the coastal areas, they have the potential to dump a massive amount of rain in a very short period of time. “They dump water, create humid conditions and create mildew on the grapes,” Glista says. “We’ve lost part of our crop in the past because of these storms coming through.”
Maintaining a vineyard in northeastern Ohio is challenging enough, Glista says, and the uncertainties involving extreme weather don’t help. “We don’t have consistent growing seasons,” he says.
While some of this is attributable to natural conditions, scientists also point to global weather extremes they say are caused by a gradually warming planet – more generally referred to as climate change. Climate conditions, specialists say, have affected everything from maple syrup to insurance premiums, from dairy farmers to Fortune 500 companies doing business in Ohio.
AG INDUSTRY AND CLIMATE
For Pine Lakes’ Glista, a sizeable portion of the wine produced at the site comes from grapes nurtured in his own vineyard, now approaching 10 acres. The rest are transported from other wine-producing regions across the country – Lake Erie, the Finger Lakes region of New York, southwestern Oregon, Washington state and northern California.
“There is some reality in that it’s getting warmer year over year, a gradual change in climates,” Glista says.
Grape growers in California, for example, have wrestled with intense, dry heat and wildfire outbreaks in recent years that have hampered wine production in that part of the country. “A lot of California wineries are buying up acreage in Oregon because they’re battling that issue,” Glista says.
He says damages caused last year by wildfires in California are just now affecting the wine industry. “I was in line to get some merlot grapes from California but ended up refusing the load because of smoke damage from wildfires,” he says. “The costs for grapes have skyrocketed.”
Warmer climate in Ohio, however, could also lead to winemakers experimenting with different varieties that require higher growing temperatures, says Andrew Kirk, a research specialist at the Ashtabula Agricultural Research Station, an affiliate of The Ohio State University.
“You may see grape varieties in the future that need a longer season,” he says.
The unstable climate could affect the quality of the crop since warm and wet conditions invite disease and infestation. “We’ve had a number of our wettest and warmest years in the past decade,” Kirk says. “I’m not a climate scientist. But we are observing a pattern.”
As for whether climate change could have a serious effect on the Great Lakes region and Ohio’s wine industry, Kirk says, “The short answer is we don’t really know. But it does produce some uncertainty among the growers.”
Others in local agriculture say that climate change has had a noticeable effect on business over the past two decades.
“We seem to be having hotter days – higher temperatures and humidity,” says Dianne Shoemaker, a dairy farmer in Mahoning County and a professor with the OSU Extension. These overall higher temperatures, she says, create issues in terms of managing heat stress among her livestock.
Warmer days and nights have forced dairy farmers to make adjustments to cool dairy cows, such as adding more fans, designing buildings to create more airflow, and adding sprinkler systems. All of this increases the cost of doing business in the dairy industry.
“When you don’t manage heat stress, it affects production,” Shoemaker says. “It also impacts reproduction.”
Les Ober, a farmer in Geauga County who also engages in maple syrup production, says that 30 years ago it wasn’t uncommon to experience one bad year of yields every 10 years. But recent cycles of freezing and warmth, followed by a second deep freeze and then unusually warm temperatures have wrought havoc on production.
“We’ve had three bad years out of the last five,” Ober says. “2021 was not good: Producers were down between 20% and 40%. It doesn’t put you out of business. But it makes it harder.”
Growth zones are gradually shifting, he says. For the syrup industry, it means that populations of maple species – sugar maples in particular – are likely to find a more agreeable growing habitat further north in the coming decades as temperatures rise. Other species such as red maple could thrive in warmer climates here, he says.
As an example, Ober points to overall warmer conditions in other states, such as the northern reaches of Vermont and New Hampshire, where it was once nearly impossible to produce syrup. “It used to be too cold. Now, you can make it very well there,” he says.
SCIENCE BEHIND WARMING
Aaron Wilson, a scientist at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at Ohio State, says that warmer temperatures are not the result of direct sunlight. Rather they’re the interaction of solar radiation with the surface of the earth.
“Solar radiation comes in. It gets absorbed by everything here on the surface. And the earth radiates that energy back,” Wilson explains.
Water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere absorb this energy and heat from the earth.
“If we increase the number of particles in the atmosphere, they absorb more heat and less heat escapes into space and the atmosphere warms,” Wilson says.
Rising temperatures have a direct effect on the hydraulic cycle, Wilson says. Warmer conditions lead to more evaporation from bodies of water, thus adding more water vapor to the atmosphere. More water vapor in the atmosphere contributes to volatile weather patterns and greater instances of intense periods of rainfall.
“In Ohio, we’re seeing two, three, four, five inches of rainfall in short periods of time,” Wilson says. Across the Midwest and the East, the climate has experienced dramatic swings from intense, short droughts to inundations of rain.
In northeastern Ohio, it’s become rare to experience an entire season of snow on the ground, while periods of rain are far more intense, Wilson says: “Youngstown has already seen two events this year of either near or above an inch and a half of rainfall,” he says.
What is less noticeable to many is that overnight temperatures are warmer, Wilson says. “We do get cold extremes, but typically not as often and not of a long duration.”
In fact, nine of the 10 warmest years in Ohio have occurred since 1990, while eight of its wettest years have occurred during that same time frame. “2021 was the third-warmest fall on record,” Wilson says, and the fifth-warmest year.
Heavy rainfall events, which in 1960 measured return periods of one every 100 years, today are reduced to one every 37 years, Wilson says. “We’re getting warmer and we’re getting wetter.”
These conditions could have dramatic effects across Ohio in the years to come should warming trends continue at these levels, according to a study performed in 2015 by the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Global temperatures have increased about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since pre-industrial levels, the study found. At the current pace, the study shows that the cumulative increase should reach the 3.6-degree Fahrenheit mark before 2050.
Under these conditions, summers in Ohio would resemble the climate in southern Illinois by 2030, while winters would feel like those experienced in northern Virginia, the analysis shows. By the end of this century, a typical Ohio July would be more akin to a current Arkansas summer, with winter conditions similar to those experienced in North Carolina.
CLIMATE CHANGE ECONOMICS
Should warming continue at this rate, it could yield disastrous consequences for the global economy, which in turn could have an impact on business in Ohio and the Mahoning Valley, says A.J. Sumell, professor of economics at Youngstown State University.
“The costs associated with allowing climate change to continue are much greater compared to the costs of not reducing it,” Sumell says. Should emissions go unchecked, it could result in a 4% reduction in global gross domestic product annually. Placed into perspective, GDP declined less than 2% during the Great Recession.
“If you think of the amount of pain associated with that type of reduction, multiply it by two,” he says. “There are costs associated with reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But they are a fraction of the costs of not doing it.”
Still, Sumell says the Mahoning Valley is more insulated from the direct effect of climate change compared to other regions of the country. Among the most vulnerable are the coastal areas, which bear the brunt of hurricanes and other tropical storms that have increased in their intensity over the last several decades, he says.
“That doesn’t mean we’ll not experience increased flooding or larger variations in temperature,” Sumell says. “We’ve already seen that.”
Local economies tied to the global market would most certainly feel some effect, Sumell says. Storms that wash out ports or harbors in Asia that dock containers bound for the United States could lead to supply chain issues for domestic companies.
“Starbucks is concerned about climate change because of its impact on coffee producers around the world,” he says.
In many areas of the United States, insurance premiums have skyrocketed because of major recurring disasters, Sumell says. “The insurance industry is heavily impacted. They’re going to have to respond by raising premiums, especially on the coastal areas,” he says.
The number of weather disasters, adjusted to the consumer price index, that total $1 billion or more in damages has increased significantly during the last decade, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information.
Between 2010 and 2019, the agency recorded 123 such events that totaled $872.9 billion in damages and 5,224 deaths. Between 2000 and 2009, the organization logged 63 disasters that accounted for $556.8 billion in losses and 3,091 deaths. During the 1980s, there were just 29 $1 billion or greater events, $190.2 billion in damages, and 2,870 deaths.
In 2021, natural disasters caused worldwide losses of $280 billion, of which $120 billion was insured, according to data from Munich RE, a global provider of insurance and reinsurance that monitors risk. More than half of these losses occurred in the United States, which recorded $145 billion in losses – $85 billion of which were insured – the most expensive year to date.
These disasters are prone to the coastal areas of the country, says Shelly Taylor, president of Paige & Byrnes Insurance in Howland. “It hasn’t had much of an impact here,” she says. “Florida, however, is a mess. Premiums are going up at least 25%, in some cases almost 40%.”
Recent heavy rains have spurred customers to inquire about sewer and backup drain coverage, Taylor says. “People are getting wiser about it,” she adds, noting some have installed systems such as sump pumps in their basements as a backup remedy.
Major industries and companies have also noted the impact of climate change. Ohio-based companies Sherwin-Williams, Goodyear Tire & Rubber, AK Steel and Owens Corning have all included clauses in regulatory filings that warn of supply chain disruptions caused by natural disasters. In March, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission proposed new rules that would require public companies to disclose the risks associated with climate change.
“Business attraction projects almost always come with questions about what renewable resources are available,” says Shea MacMillan, vice president of economic development at the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber. “Having a culture of sustainability and diversity is important to companies today,” he says.
YSU’s Sumell points to initiatives underway in the Mahoning Valley – such as Ultium Cells LLC’s electric-vehicle battery cell manufacturing plant in Lordstown – as evidence of the economic opportunities associated with the transition to a zero-carbon footprint.
“We can have a stronger, more sustainable economy – independent of climate change – to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and our dependence on oil,” he says.
Still, Sumell says it’s imperative that communities and businesses address the threats of climate change through planning and policies that seek to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. “We should enact measures early to mitigate these effects,” he says, based on some examples he’s seen in cities such as Cleveland.
“I can say with confidence it will get worse,” Sumell says. “It would be a useful thing for the regional economy to plan now.”
Pictured: Joe Glista, winemaker and brewmaster at the Vineyards at Pine Lake, prunes a row of grape vines.