On September 21, 2018

Climate change in Vermont

What do bets on the ice melt date in Joe’s Pond and apple blossom notes of Vermont farmers have in common? Both contributed to the creation of the first-state-in-the-nation Vermont Climate Assessment. The 2014 Vermont report combines local data from University of Vermont and state scientists in partnership with the National Climate Assessment (which provides high level summaries). The result is a detailed analysis of the environmental, social, and economic impact of climate change on Vermont.

“This assessment is the first of its kind anywhere in the United States” with “rigorous research that integrates social and natural sciences,” UVM’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics director Taylor Ricketts reported. “This report will guide our state to be more resilient to the changes we now know are coming.”

“Some of the impacts in Vermont are going to present new opportunities that we can capitalize on in agriculture, recreation and tourism,” said the report’s lead author, Dr. Gillian Galford. A longer growing season will help farmers, other varieties of European grapes will thrive, and tourism and recreation should benefit. More snow is expected over the next two to three decades, which will bode well for the ski industry.

There are also “some serious negatives that we need to be prepared to deal with. By acting now, we can adapt to and mitigate some of these problems,” Galford said. With temperatures increasing by over 5 degrees F. by 2100, “winter precipitation will shift to rain in the next 50 years.” The expected annual snowfall will decline approximately 50 percent by century’s end. Hotter temperatures will also result in summer heat stress for dairy cows, a shorter maple syrup season, and possible short droughts.

As we experienced with Irene, more intense storms and heavy rainfall is predicted, especially in the mountainous regions. The state will experience an 80 percent increase in the likelihood of flooding. Fortunately, the extensive infrastructure work since Irene should help protect some areas known to be problematic. Flood Ready Vermont provides maps and projections of communities at risk of flooding.

“The climate has already changed substantially in Vermont,” Galford observed. In only the last three decades across the state, spring is arriving one week earlier as observed from satellites, NASA climate models, and local records from weather stations, farmers, and ice-out dates from Joe’s Pond.

“As a scientist, the Joe’s Pond ice-out date makes a beautiful trend, but as a person, I find it tragic that our climate is changing this rapidly,” Galford said.

I’d never heard of Joe’s Pond in West Danville which, I discovered, was originally named “Sozap Nebees” in Abenake meaning “Joseph” and “pond or stream.” The neighboring pond was Molly’s Pond after Joe’s wife, who was a Micmac. The couple taught early settlers how to survive in the harsh climate, and Joe also served as a scout to generals Jacob Bayley and John Hazen during the Canadian campaign’s military road construction between 1775-1776. In 1785, the Legislature officially named the ponds after the couple, and awarded a small pension to “Indian Joe” for his years of service.

Fast forward to the 1980s when Jules Chatot, normally a summer resident, visited his camp on the still-frozen pond in late winter or early spring. Cabin fever led him to start a famous wager on the number of days past March 31 when the pond’s ice would melt. Chatot kept a very accurate record on each $1 bet. A graph of melt dates demonstrates a dramatic decrease on average of an earlier thaw. The contest began with a few hundred bets but has grown to over 12,000. The total is split 50/50 with the winner and Joe’s Pond Association, which uses the funds for a July 4 fireworks display.

Little did Abenake “Indian Joe” imagine his pond would gain such acclaim. But the Vermont Climate Assessment inspired state climate summaries to be prepared during the previous administration. They include historical climate variations and trends, future projections, sea level rise, and coastal flooding. The interactive website of observations and projections is for every state. They can be found at statesummaries.ncics.org.

We can be sure the southeastern states in the wake of Hurricane Florence used this localized, vital data to assess the danger and make decisions to evacuate coastal and lowland regions. Those now suffering, and victims of past hurricanes and storms that damaged coasts and inlands, know how fragile life can be in tempests’ devastating winds and floods.

Climate change now affects all lives.

Here in Vermont, as protected and insulated as we may feel, we well remember Tropical Storm Irene’s extensive flooding and powerful destruction. Some ways to help can be found at: climatekids.nasa.gov, davidsuzuki.org.

Marguerite Jill Dye is an artist and writer who divides her time between the Green Mountains of Vermont and Florida’s Gulf Coast.

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