hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News and Issues


New meaning to changing seasons

Report predicts fallout from long-term climate shifts in Vermont


Contributing writer


The Vermont of maple syrup in the spring, red and orange foliage in October and snowy winters may be just a memory in a few decades, according to a new study of how climate change will affect the Green Mountain State.

“Climate change is no longer a thing of the future; it is affecting Vermont today,” Vermont Secretary of Natural Resources Deb Markowitz wrote in the forward to the new report, the Vermont Climate Assessment.

The report was compiled by Gillian Galford, a climate scientist and professor at the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, and eight of her graduate students. The Gund Institute and the state Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research provided financial support for the study. Galford and her students had assistance from experts at UVM, federal and state agencies, and other professional organizations.

Their assessment was released June 11, a little more than a month after the federal government issued its National Climate Assessment, an interagency report detailing the current effects of climate change – and warning of likely future effects if fossil-fuel emissions aren’t reduced dramatically.

Vermont is the first state to publish its own climate-change assessment. Although the national assessment looks at how climate change will affect the United States as a whole, the Vermont assessment considers the specific effects of climate change on the state and key sectors of its economy.

Galford had collaborated with Jerry Molillo, lead author of the National Climate Assessment, before she came to the Gund Institute.

“He told me we’re in a special place at the Gund Institute,” she said. “He encouraged use to do a state report.”

For the Vermont project, researchers gathered historical data from the National Weather Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other sources – including farmers who keep records of first and last frosts and the dates of first apple blossoms, and community groups with records from long-running ice-out competitions.

Galford said the project did not include any data from farmers in Bennington or Rutland counties, but she’d like to have some.

“I’m interested in being in touch with people who have similar records” of first and last frosts, beginning and end of sap runs, blossom and harvest times and ice-out dates on local ponds, she said.

Galford’s team compared their data with computer projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to forecast trends.

According to the report, the data show clearly that Vermont’s climate is changing. Since 1960, the average annual temperature has risen by 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit and average annual rainfall has increased 5.9 inches. Winters are warming twice as quickly as summers.

The additional rain is coming not as more showers, but rather as intense storms and extended rainy periods followed by monthlong dry spells. High-energy lightning storms also are becoming more frequent, the researchers concluded.

The report evaluates the potential impact of climate change on the state’s community development patterns, energy use, water resources, forests, agriculture, recreation and tourism, human health and transportation. Each chapter ends with a confidence rating about its predictions, from very high to low, based on the reliability of the information that was included in the analysis.


More storms, changing forests
Despite some encouraging possibilities, the overall picture offered by the report is grim.
The report notes that in 2011, every county in the state applied for a federal disaster declaration because of storms and floods. That was the year the remnants of Hurricane Irene devastated Vermont with deadly flooding that destroyed highways and left some smaller communities isolated for weeks afterward. The same year, spring flooding along Lake Champlain caused an estimated $6 million in damage to homes and businesses.

More rain, especially in the winter and in mountainous areas, and shorter winter freeze times will increase flooding, the report warns. As overall temperatures rise, energy demand for heat in the winter will decrease, but this probably will be more than offset by increased use of air conditioning in the summer.

Sugar maples, the primary source of color during foliage season, and red spruce, both already in decline, will continue to die out, to be replaced by oaks, hickories and red maples. Fir trees and spruces will disappear. Earlier bud breaks and flowering seasons may make some tree species more vulnerable to pests and diseases, the report predicts.

Farmers will see a longer growing season and milder winters, allowing them to grow more southern crops that historically didn’t thrive in Vermont, such as grapes, the report suggested. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has already raised the state’s hardiness zone, a measure of winter conditions that guides farmers and gardeners, from Zone 4 to Zone 5.

Higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will benefit some crops, but will also promote weed growth. Pests and diseases may proliferate in the warmer temperatures. Farming, always a weather-sensitive business, may become even more risky as day-to-day weather becomes less predictable.

The next 25 years should be good for skiers and other winter sports enthusiasts as winter snowfall increases. But between 30 and 40 years from now, the report predicts, Vermont’s winters will become too warm for any significant snowfall.

On the other hand, longer summers may draw more warm-weather tourists, especially those seeking to escape the heat of regions farther south.

More people will suffer and die from accidents and diseases caused by high heat, intense storms, floods, and insects and diseases moving north, the report says. Crops wiped out by storms and droughts will make it harder for Vermonters to feed themselves. Air quality will be affected by more mold and other allergens and higher levels of air pollution.

Although the initial focus in media reports about the Vermont Climate Assessment was on the impact on ski areas, Galford said people now seem more concerned about rainfall and flooding.
The damage from Irene in 2011 demonstrated how vulnerable Vermont’s transportation system is to flooding. Many small towns across the state are accessible only by a few roads at the bottom of steep valleys. The report warns that erosion, high heat, and winter freeze-and-thaw cycles made worse by climate change will damage roadways and bridges, and sparsely populated towns will have a hard time finding the resources to fix them.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Galford noted, “many towns were built on flood plains because these were the fertile areas. More rainfall and more intense storms make them vulnerable now.”
Many people are noticing the changing climate, Galford added.

“Vermonters are very in tune with the landscape,” she said. “It’s their livelihood and their identity. People who have lived here for 30 years or more can tell you they’ve seen changes.”


Clear signs of change?
But not everyone is convinced yet that the damage from Irene was more than an isolated event, and even some Vermonters who work in weather-dependent businesses aren’t sure they’re seeing a pattern of weird weather that adds up to climate change.

“We’ve been in business more than 30 years, and we’ve always had late springs” like this year, said Wendy Dutton, a co-owner of Dutton Farm Stand. The business operates farm stands with Vermont produce and growers’ supplies in Manchester, West Brattleboro and Newfane.
“Some years have been early,” she added.

Dutton’s stands are open year-round, and although tourists are a big part of the business, “we’re not necessarily dependent on the tourist trade,” Dutton said. “The tourists buy syrup and jams. We want to get more produce on local people’s tables.”

The UVM report points out that if carbon emissions can be reduced worldwide, the effects of climate change won’t be as severe. The assessment notes that many Vermonters strongly support the state’s goals of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change, by 50 percent from 2000 levels by 2028. The state also has a goal of deriving 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050.

A recent poll commissioned by the Energy Action Network found that most state residents believe it’s important for the state to slash its consumption of fossil fuel and shift to renewable energy sources. A second poll, taken for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group and released last month, had similar results, finding that 72 percent of the state’s voters are more likely to back candidates who support energy efficiency, clean energy and action on climate change.

But as in the rest of the nation, the share of Vermonters favoring tougher climate-change action varies widely depending on their politics. In the VPIRG poll, 93 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of independents said they’d be more inclined toward candidates supporting climate-change action, but only 49 percent of Republicans said they would.

The UVM report says more education and outreach are needed to encourage Vermonters to change their energy usage and behavior. The authors suggested that children should receive more education in earth science so they understand how their daily choices affect the planet.
The report also calls for changes in state policy to encourage more environmentally friendly behavior. It says better understanding and knowledge of the issue will help Vermonters and policy makers make the necessary changes to limit climate change’s impacts on the state’s environment, communities and economy.

“Resilience is a very empowering word,” Galford said. “We can thrive if we start planning and adapting now.”

To read the entire Vermont Climate Assessment, visit www.vtclimate.org. Click on “videos and publications” and scroll down the page for the link to the file.