Losing Winter: Climate Change Will Hit New England Hard

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 18, 2013

Have you noticed that maple syrup is getting more expensive and harder to find? There’s a reason for that, and we’ll get to it in a moment. First, consider that the world’s car population exceeded a billion sometime in 2010, and that the U.S. alone, with more than 240 million of them, has the biggest global share (though China is coming up fast).

Pam Templer at Hubbard Brook. Her work looks into the scary-near-future in New England. (Jim Motavalli photo)In the U.S., all forms of transportation accounted for about 31 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in 2011, the EPA reports. So if you’re wondering why the weather is getting warmer, cars — yes, the same sources of joy and pain Tom and Ray talk about on their show — are a big part of it. Now back to the maple syrup — just one of the ways New England (our fair region here at Car Talk) is losing winter. Skiing, snowboarding, they’re threatened, too. Some resorts are now emphasizing summer stuff like hiking, biking and swimming, because winter has become such a bust.

I spent half of last month as part of the Marine Biological Laboratory’s Logan Science Journalism Fellowship, and that meant traipsing around New Hampshire’s 7,800-acre Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, where scientists have gathered to study ecosystem health since 1955. There’s a huge amount of data on the trees at Hubbard Brook, and that’s why scientists — like Boston University’s Pam Templer, a biology professor — are drawn there.

With a jaundiced eye on all that car exhaust, Templer is very concerned about our losing winter in this part of the country. “The climate is definitely changing around New England, where it’s warmed 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1950s,” she said. “There are about 20 fewer days when snow covers the ground then there was back then.” We know this because they monitor winter climate and snow cover at Hubbard Brook — it’s like Hawaii’s Mauna Loa, where we measure temperature trends.

Mike Hallworth of George Mason University is studying declining songbird populations at Hubbard Brook — a process that involves fitting ovenbirds with tiny GPS locators. (Jim Motavalli photo)“At the ski areas, they now have to make snow and replenish what was already made,” Templer said. “To extract maple sap, they’re using stronger vacuum methods. We’re very concerned about the long-term prospects for the threatened sugar maple, which is why folks are starting to tap the red maple, which produces just as much sap but with lower sugar content. They have to boil down 40 gallons of sap for each gallon of syrup.”

Producing syrup, a treasured tradition in New England for centuries, requires a delicate winter balance of freezing and thawing, plus consistent snow conditions. Farmers in Vermont and Maine have been complaining for years that their season has gotten shorter, and sometimes doesn’t arrive at all. That means the ideal conditions are moving north, and Canada has captured more than 80 percent of the maple syrup market.

Hubbard Brook's trees are always under study. One project has added calcium to check how it affects tree growth in forests depleted by climate change. (Jim Motavalli photo)In Boston and other New England cities, Templer said the effects are even worse than they are in the woods because of the “heat island” effect — all that concrete tends to add warming. That means even less snow in the winter, and city residents disinclined to go skiing because they’re skeptical about conditions in the mountains.

“A picture is taking shape of a startlingly different kind of New England than that experienced by our parents and grandparents,” Templer and co-author David Sleeper wrote in the Boston Globe Magazine. I first wrote about “Losing Winter” way back in 2007, because the trends were already quite apparent then. Here's Templer on video talking about what's going on with New England's trees (which don't get to tell us their problems directly):

Things are bad now, but they’re going to get much worse, and Templer’s work is simulating what it might be like if temperatures warm by a whopping five degrees Centigrade. How does this modern alchemist accomplish that? Easy, just embed heating elements in a test plot at Hubbard Brook. Actually it’s harder than it sounds  — the controls filled a little cabin Templer’s had built up there.

As Templer points out, a paradox is at work here. When it gets warmer, there’s less snow, and snow acts as an insulator for soils and the organisms that live in it — tree roots, for example. “In a warmer world, we’re going to have colder soils,” she told me at Hubbard Brook, standing outside her cabin.

In earlier experiments, Templer and her team simply removed snow from selected patches of ground and measured how they fared. They found a distinct drop in the arthropod population (mostly spiders) and diversity living in the soil.  “We were already doing snow manipulation studies,” she said, “but a question often came up — it’s also going to be warmer, so what happens without snow under the conditions we’ll see in the future?" Hence the current grant. Here’s what the team is doing:

Four plots are equipped with heating cable buried 10 centimeters below the soil surface to warm the soils five degrees Centigrade above ambient temperatures. Two plots will be warmed throughout the year while the other two will be warmed in the growing season, but turned off in winter with snow manually removed via shoveling to induce soil frost.

I know, those poor trees! Subjected to climate change even before it hits! Here's Templer, again on video, at Hubbard Brook talking about her experiment there:

Soon we won’t have to simulate life in a warmer world. It will be everyday reality for all of us in ye olde New England.

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