Climate change is making Vermont a "hottie," and not in a good way
Over the years, climate change has gone by many names: weather disruption, climate destabilization, global warming — or global weirding — even “atmospheric cancer.” In Vermont, we might dub it the death of winter. Call it what you will, this inconvenient truth is undeniable and cannot be ignored — even if you still believe that human behavior is not the culprit.
Once upon a time, only climatologists and glacier researchers noticed the small changes resulting from a steady accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Then biologists, foresters and environmental researchers began spotting subtle — and not-so-subtle — changes in local ecosystems: altered migratory patterns, earlier plant blooming, shifting habitats and the slow-but-steady invasion of nonnative species.
Today, the bellwethers of global warming in Vermont are obvious all around us: hotter summers, wetter winters, and more erratic and extreme weather events. There’s less ice to fish on in December and more ticks and mosquitoes to swat at in July. Global warming has disrupted maple sugaring, dairy farming and wild-mushroom collecting. And, for tens of thousands of Vermonters, Tropical Storm Irene was a rude awakening to what some are calling “the new normal.”
This Wednesday, January 25, 350Vermont, a nonprofit group committed to a dramatic and full-scale response to the global climate crisis, launches its Fossil Fuel Freedom Campaign at the Vermont Statehouse. Its goal is to help bring global carbon dioxide levels back below 350 parts per million, a level scientists say is safe for a “normal” climate. The campaign proposes that, by 2025, Vermont achieve net-zero CO2 emissions and meet 90 percent of its energy needs from clean and renewable sources. Reaching those goals will require unprecedented political will.
This week, Seven Days takes a closer look at some of the unmistakable warning signs that Mother Nature has been sending us. The picture isn’t pretty, which is why we’ve also examined some potential benefits of a warmer climate in Vermont, such as fewer turtlenecks, less snow shoveling, and locally grown peaches and rice. But while it doesn’t hurt to look at the “bright side” of climate change, it will hurt not to give serious consideration to our responses to its destructive potential.
Our laundry list of climate-change effects is by no means comprehensive, nor do we have space to address all the ways in which Vermonters are already adapting to the age of warming. But we asked experts in several fields for specifics — current observations and predictions — that can help us wrap our heads around the problem.
No discussion of the effects of climate change in Vermont can begin without prior examination of, well, the changing climate. Researchers acknowledge that their ability to predict the weather is limited. But they can say with considerable confidence that broader climate trends observed over the last 30 years reliably indicate what’s to come in the next 30. And, by all measures, our future does not look cool.
Alan Betts is an atmospheric researcher in Pittsford, Vt. For the past three decades, his work has been funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation. Most recently, Betts compiled a report for Gov. Peter Shumlin’s climate change team. It’s full of disheartening stats about the changes that have already occurred in Vermont, as well as unsettling predictions of what’s on the horizon.
Since 1970, Betts notes, the average temperature in New England has risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit, with average winter temperatures rising twice as fast — 4 degrees between 1970 and 2000.
Precipitation in Vermont has also increased by as much as 20 percent, with more of it arriving as rain and less as snow. Overall, Betts warns Vermonters to expect rainier winters, earlier springs, hotter summers, longer and more persistent droughts, and heavier and more frequent and torrential “extreme” weather events such as Tropical Storm Irene.
Even under the most conservative estimates of future greenhouse gas emissions, Betts predicts that the Green Mountain State will be 3 degrees hotter by 2050 and 5 degrees hotter by century’s end. Using present emission levels, the picture looks more dire.
“If current high emissions continue,” Betts adds, “Vermont’s summer climate by 2080 will feel similar to the climate of northwest Georgia for the period of 1961 to 1990.”
Such forecasts need not rely exclusively on complex computer models. Betts points to a simple but revealing sign of Vermont’s changing climate in the town of Waterford. Since 1971, the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury has been tracking the annual date when Stiles Pond freezes in winter and melts in the spring.
Despite large variability from year to year, Betts says the long-term trend is unmistakable: The pond has frozen nearly four days later per decade, and melted nearly three days earlier per decade. Today, Stiles Pond is frozen for four weeks less than it was 40 years ago.
That body of water is no aberration. Last spring, Canada’s Hudson Bay melted a month earlier than normal and didn’t freeze at all in November. Betts calls that “highly unusual.” Then again, the term “usual” has been losing its meaning.
“This year, I was still digging over the cover crop in my garden as late as January 2, which 40 years ago was never possible,” Betts says. “Three of the last six years, the ground in Pittsford, Vt., has not been frozen in early January. That’s yet another marker for this shrinking of the winter frozen period.”
The upside? Betts says the locavore movement should thrive in coming decades, as Vermont’s growing season lengthens and warmer-climate crops become more numerous and available. That’s assuming, of course, that such gains aren’t offset by the increased cost of pest management.
Flora and Fauna
When Lewis Ziska talks about kudzu, he likens the “ungodly” invasive plant to something out of a 1950s horror movie.
“The joke in the South is that if you leave your dog on the porch overnight, kudzu will get it,” says Ziska, a U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher based in Maryland.
It’s not much of an exaggeration: The vine, left untended, can swallow whole buildings over a few years. Native to Japan and China, kudzu has long been a problem in the southeastern United States. Now it’s heading north: Massachusetts. New Hampshire. Canada.
“It might even be here already, and we just don’t know it,” says Sharon Plumb, the invasive-species coordinator for the Nature Conservancy’s Vermont chapter.
Weed experts such as Plumb and Ziska are on the lookout for invasive species and agricultural pests. Everyday citizens might not notice the kinds of change they’re seeing. A plant is a plant is a plant, after all.
But not all plants are created equal. Weeds — everything from wild strains of cultivated crops such as wild oats and nightshades to stubborn invasive species — are positioned to outwit, outplay and outlast in the scramble to take root in a changing environment. Some are coming north with warmer temperatures. Others are invasive ornamental species, such as the burning-bush shrub popular in landscaping.
“They didn’t used to be a problem, because the seeds were frozen [and killed] in the wintertime,” says Plumb. “Now that our growing season has expanded on either side … we’re seeing them take off in ways that they couldn’t before.”
Similarly, Plumb adds, some plants, such as buckthorns, are “leafing out” earlier in the spring, and holding on to their leaves later into the fall. That buys them extra time to grow and outcompete native species. Plumb has been in sugar-maple stands that are overrun with waist-high buckthorn or barberry. Vermonters can’t afford to ignore the problem, she argues, if they care about the health and productivity of their forests.
But weeds have a leg up in the ecosystem.
“The thing that weeds do better than anything else is adapt to change,” Ziska says. Unlike cultivated crops, weeds produce huge numbers of seeds that are genetically diverse.
Weeds also have one huge advantage heading into a warming climate: They can gobble up CO2.
CO2 draws attention these days primarily as one of the greenhouse gases fueling climate change, but it’s also an essential ingredient of plant growth. Ziska planted weeds in areas exposed to higher-than-normal CO2 levels — such as inner-city plots — and discovered that the plants grew to terrifying heights. His research also suggests that weeds respond better to higher CO2 levels than do cash crops.
“When you change a resource very quickly, not all plants react to change in the same way,” Ziska says.
The upside? Weeds that are wild relatives of commonly cultivated crops may provide genetic clues to unlock the problem of farming in a volatile environment.
“Maybe these weeds are, in fact, pointing out the way to adapt to the sudden change in climate,” Ziska posits.
After all, weeds are only weeds until we find a use for them.
Physical and Mental Health
The Vermont Department of Health isn’t a research institution, so it’s not normally in the business of making predictions about years ahead, never mind decades. Lori Cragin, acting state epidemiologist for environmental health, explains that diseases and injuries can be caused by a multitude of factors, including demographics, genetics, socioeconomics and environmental conditions. Still, she says the potential consequences of global warming for Vermonters’ health are likely to be numerous and vast.
Consider, for example, the recent rise of Lyme disease. A decade ago, Lyme was virtually unheard of in Vermont; in 2000, VDH documented 40 cases, most of which were probably contracted out of state. By 2011, more than 500 cases had been identified. Currently, there’s no conclusive evidence that the “Lyme line” is creeping northward due to global warming. However, Vermont’s milder winters, which are more conducive to Lyme-bearing deer ticks, may also foster other vector-borne illnesses, such as West Nile virus and rabies.
Warmer water temperatures in lakes and rivers are bound to bring earlier and longer blue-green-algae blooms, Cragin says. This will create problems not only for people who recreate in Lake Champlain but also for municipalities, such as Burlington, that rely on the lake for their drinking water.
Longer growing seasons will bring spikes in levels of pollen, dust, mold spores and other airborne allergens. That means increasing incidence and severity of asthma, seasonal allergies and complications of chronic respiratory diseases.
Severe heat-related problems are also likely to rise, particularly among children, seniors, people with compromised immune systems and the disabled. Health experts expect to see more fainting, heat exhaustion, heart attacks and strokes as heat waves become longer and more frequent. This problem is deemed serious enough that in March, VDH will launch an online portal for tracking emergency-room visits, hospitalizations and deaths caused by temperature-related stress, such as hyperthermia and heatstroke.
Melanoma, the most common form of cancer in the country, has also gone up. Between 2001 and 2005, Vermont had the highest rate of melanoma diagnoses in the United States — 63 percent above the national average. Is global warming to blame? As a scientist, Cragin can’t say for sure, though the circumstantial evidence is compelling.
What about the mental and psychological impact of global warming? Clearly, more frequent and severe weather events, such as the 2011 floods, won’t just cause more injuries, drownings and waterborne diseases. We’ll also see more stress-related disorders, including depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
Amy Seidl is an environmental studies professor at the University of Vermont and author of the 2011 book Finding Higher Ground: Adaptation in the Age of Warming. She points to a relatively new psychological disorder: “solastalgia.”
The term, coined in 2004 by Glenn Albrecht, a professor of sustainability at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, refers to the emotional pain people experience when they recognize that the place where they live is under assault. Think of the Arctic Inuits — or Katrina victims.
“With nostalgia, you leave a place and then you feel the pain for not being in that landscape,” Seidl says. “With solastalgia, you stay in the place, but the place is changed so radically that you don’t recognize it anymore.”
Vermont hasn’t experienced that dramatic a change — yet. “But you can imagine that happening here in time,” Seidl says.
If there’s an upside, it’s that Vermonters should expect fewer shoveling-related injuries (strained backs and heart attacks in winter) and fewer cold-related injuries and deaths, including frostbite and hypothermia. In addition, Cragin notes that there might be “benefits related to the actions people take to mitigate climate change.” For example, if more Vermonters walk or bike in an effort to reduce their carbon emissions, “these behavior modifications can lead to a reduction in heart attacks, diabetes, obesity and cancer,” Cragin says.
Get ready to swap apple cider for vino, and tap your maple trees while you can.
That’s the word on agriculture and climate change from the University of Vermont Extension.
Here’s what we know now: Erratic weather events are increasing, and some of Vermont’s staple crops may be in for trouble. Most varieties of apples need to be exposed to a certain amount of cold each winter to blossom in the spring, and studies show that crop yields take a hit following warmer winters.
But the state’s most famous cold-weather crop is arguably maple syrup. Scientists predict that, over time, sugar maples will face more competition from species of trees better suited to warm weather. More pressing, says UVM Extension maple specialist Tim Wilmot, is the fact that even producers who’ve been sugaring for decades are stumped when it comes to responding to warming winters. On average, sugaring now begins eight days earlier and ends 11 days sooner than it did 40 years ago. And freak warm temperatures can bring a sugaring season to a screeching halt — as they did in 2010, when temps spiked to 80 degrees in April.
Traditionally, Wilmot says, Vermont sugar makers tapped their trees on Town Meeting Day in early March. Now some of the bigger producers start as early as January, in part because of the weather.
“They’ve learned that waiting as long as Town Meeting Day can mean missing some of the sugaring weather in the beginning of the season and ending up with a very short season,” Wilmot says.
If the traditional cycle of freezing nights and warmer days lets up, old-fashioned tap-and-bucket producers will be out of luck. For the near future, Wilmot says, newer technology will keep the sap running: Most big producers of maple syrup use vacuum lines to draw sap from the trees.
“This kind of weather is making it harder and harder to collect syrup in the traditional way,” Wilmot says.
State researchers are bracing for any number of other temperature-related effects: Dairy cows, for instance, produce less milk during heat waves. More rain means flooded fields, so farmers may need to invest in better soil drainage.
“Small changes add up,” says Vern Grubinger, a berry and vegetable specialist for UVM Extension. “The point is, you have sort of cascading effects in the whole system.”
In the good-news/bad-news story for ag in Vermont, Grubinger thinks the bad probably will outweigh the good. Still, as a horticulturalist, he sees some silver linings: The frost-free growing season in Vermont is eight days longer today than it was 100 years ago. That means more time in the field for farmers and gardeners. And, as warmer temperatures stretch the season longer still, Vermont may see some newcomers in local farmers markets: Bring on the watermelons, peaches and peppers. Bon appétit?
When Rose Paul talks about climate change and water resources, she mentions “the new normal.”
That’s how the director of science and stewardship for the Nature Conservancy in Vermont refers to what scientists believe will be an increasingly volatile and unpredictable relationship with the state’s water resources.
Rivers will get “flashier,” Paul says, because the state is due for more erratic weather patterns. That means Vermont’s weather could toggle seasonally between heavy downpours in the winter and more periods of extended drought in the summertime. When it rains, it might pour — and come summertime, says Sacha Pealer, an environmental analyst with the Agency of Natural Resources, shallower wells may dry out, and stream levels could drop to new lows.
More rain is likely to translate into more flooding and more runoff. Unless Vermonters come up with new techniques to address that runoff, it could result in higher levels of pollution, toxicity and algae blooms in major lakes. Those could pose water-quality concerns, especially in Lake Champlain, which the Nature Conservancy estimates serves more than 4000 households and 99 public water systems.
Paul says that scientists are already noticing climatic changes in Vermont’s water resources. Annual precipitation jumped in the 1970s, and today the state sees an average of three extra inches of precipitation every year compared with previous ones. When Nature Conservancy researchers looked at what that extra rain and snow meant for Lake Champlain, they learned that a three-inch increase in precipitation translates into a roughly one-foot jump in lake level measured at the King Street dock in Burlington.
If annual precipitation increases by four to six inches by the end of the century, as models suggest it will, Lake Champlain could stand an additional one foot to two feet higher.
Setting aside the issue of mitigating the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, Pealer says it’s time for Vermont to look at ways to adapt. Even if problematic emissions ground to a halt tomorrow, she says, the state would still need to make changes.
Luckily, many of ANR’s watershed-management programs can be scaled up or adapted to fit a changing climate. Pealer also says that in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, more people are beginning to pay attention to issues such as flooding and changing river habitats, and that’s encouraging collaboration with resources outside Vermont. The trick moving forward, Pealer says, will be to strike a balance between protecting human communities and giving nature room to breathe.
“Our communities are on rivers, and we have to figure out, well, how do we pay attention to what the river needs while also saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to keep people safe’?” Pealer says.
The good news, Paul adds, is that there’s still time to make changes. The Nature Conservancy’s report on water resources casts a century-long look into the future.
“That’s a long time frame for people to think about,” she says. “We have time to make gradual changes that become smart adaptations to our climate.”
Winter Recreation and Tourism
One of Vermont’s biggest cash cows — aside from cows themselves — is the fluffy white powder that has historically fallen from the sky in abundance. Vermont’s winter recreation industries — skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, ice fishing and dog sledding — shovel more than $1.1 billion into the state’s economy each year, much of it from out-of-state residents.
Yet as Vermont’s climate steadily warms, average winter temperatures have been rising twice as quickly as those in summer, resulting in more winter precipitation falling as rain. The snow that does fall has become wetter and slushier — great for snowball fights but less than ideal for carving turns.
A report prepared for the Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that, if global greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated at their present rate, Vermont’s number of snowy days could fall by more than half by late in the century — down to as few as 13 days of annual snow cover. Imagine what that would mean for season-pass sales. Even with dramatic emissions reduction, Vermont’s snow-covered days could drop by as much as one-third.
Over the last decade, Vermont’s 19 ski areas have read the handwriting in the snow, so to speak, and boosted their snowmaking coverage by more than 15 percent. Says Jeff Wise at Stowe Mountain Resort, “What we did with our snowmaking systems five years ago is the best insurance plan we could possibly have.”
Still, artificial snow is expensive, resource intensive and dependent on freezing temperatures. What’s worse, the later onset of winter cuts into the lucrative end-of-the-year holiday ski season, when resorts traditionally make a big chunk of their annual revenues. As one Vermont resort manager remarked recently, “If people don’t get to ski by Christmas, they sort of forget about us.”
Even more at risk are winter sports that rely exclusively on natural snowfall and subfreezing temperatures — namely snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, skating, ice fishing and ice climbing. The Vermont Association of Snow Travelers maintains more than 5000 miles of snowmobile trails. Throughout New England, snowmobilers drive more than $3 billion into the economy. But scientists warn that our grandchildren may have 70 percent fewer days for Ski-Dooing through the Green Mountains each year than we do.
Many such changes are already obvious to lifelong Vermonters. UVM environmental studies professor Amy Seidl lives in Huntington, where some of her neighbors who have been there 40 years or longer remember an annual tradition of playing ice hockey on a nearby pond after Thanksgiving dinner.
Seidl says that, by the time her family moved to Huntington 18 years ago, the hockey games were being played on Christmas Day. These days, they’re lucky if the pond is skateable by New Year’s Day. Several times in the last few years, Seidl laments, they’ve even canoed across the pond on Christmas.
Vermont tourism doesn’t just rely on winter, of course. What effect will global warming have on the state’s leaf-peeping season? It will arrive later, and may look dramatically different to our grandkids than it did to our grandparents. Warmer weather and pressure from invasive species could spell the decline of those trees that produce many of autumn’s most vivid colors, including beech, maple and birch, not to mention the numerous animal species they support.
A potential upside: As winters shrink, spring and summer will lengthen, providing longer seasons for warm-weather activities, including hiking, biking, rock climbing, canoeing and water sports. By 2080, skiing, as may have been replaced as Vermont’s iconic sport by mud volleyball, mud biking or, well, mud anything.
When it comes to Vermont’s future foodscape, the only certainty is that nothing is certain — yet.
For instance, oenophiles may think hotter days are a boon for grapes — but they shouldn’t expect fields of cabernet sauvignon here anytime soon. Certain vines grow more vigorously in warmer climates, says Ken Albert, wine grower and founder of Shelburne Vineyard. “That sounds desirable, except that, after the early warm spring weather coaxes the hardy vines out of dormancy, there have been sudden short dips back below freezing. This literally nips the vine in the bud,” he notes. Such a freeze killed tons of early fruit statewide during spring 2009.
Because Vermont’s winter temperatures can still dip well below zero, growers need to rely on cold-hardy grape hybrids, such as marquette and la crescent, says Albert. Their yields are steadily increasing. But along with warmer days may come wetter days, which can encourage rot as a vine’s harvest nears.
Local wine growers often discuss these conflicting factors, adds Albert. “And it usually ends with us shrugging our shoulders.”
Too much moisture may be bad for grapes, but it’s good for mushrooms, right? Not so, point out wild crafters Nova Kim and Les Hook. For 30 years, the pair have documented Vermont’s woods as they wildcrafted for mushrooms and other wild edibles to deliver to restaurants. Spring heat waves and soaking, violent rains take their toll. “For four or five Aprils, we’ve had temperatures in the 80s,” says Kim. “It takes only one or two days to really mess up mycelium” — the building blocks of fungi.
Indeed, yields have been down over the last few years. “You climb more hills, work harder and collect less in a given day,” Kim continues. “It’s been a radical change. It used to be, we’d do our collecting north and then go south. Now it’s like a candle being burned at both ends.”
Chanterelles are appearing later in spring, Kim says, and can get “drowned out” by too much rain. The appearance of morels has become unpredictable, and white matsutake — which the couple first noticed in the 1980s — are now widespread in Vermont. Unfamiliar fungi appear constantly, presenting a cumbersome task to wildcrafters who study them thoroughly before declaring them edible.
Kim and Hook are particularly distressed by land clearing for development, and how the loss of even a small patch of habitat can affect scores of organisms, including mushrooms. “It’s a very tight weave and web,” Kim says. “Each thing helps the other survive.”
On the upside, wild leeks are thriving “wherever the turkeys have taken hold, and as long as their woods and canopy are not cut, disturbed or overforaged,” Kim says.
Another unexpected benefit to rising temperatures is a potential glut of rice. As Vermont grows soggier, the perfect conditions for rice paddies appear. Ben Falk, founder of Moretown’s Whole Systems Design, has grown short-grain brown rice for four years. “Rice is the only aquatic grain, and it feeds more people than any other crop in the world,” Falk told Seven Days last year.
Three months before Irene struck Vermont, Falk presciently called paddies “edible stormwater detention basins.” Food for thought.
Illustrations by Tim Newcomb.
350Vermont’s Fossil Fuel Freedom Campaign launches with a press conference on Wednesday, January 25, at 10 a.m. in the Cedar Creek Room of the Vermont Statehouse, Montpelier. 350vt.org
The ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington is hosting an exhibit, “Seasons of Change: Global Warming in Your Backyard,” about how climate change affects us all. Through March 25. echovermont.org
Amy Seidl speaks about her book "Finding Higher Ground" and local tactics of adaptation to climate change on Wednesday, February 8, 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Fletcher Free Library, Burlington. Free.