Climate assessment: Vermont to get warmer, wetter

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Climate assessment: Vermont to get warmer, wetter

Tue, 06/10/2014 - 11:00am -- tim

by Timothy McQuiston Vermont Business Magazine Fewer days for making maple syrup. Twenty-five years with more snow for skiing. Summer heat stress for dairy cows. Longer summers. Longer falls. More mud for mud season. More weather spikes, with heavier rains following the occasional spring drought. These are a few of the forecasts from the Vermont Climate Assessment, the nation’s first comprehensive state-level climate assessment, presented Tuesday at the Vermont Climate Assessment conference at the University of Vermont. The Vermont report is partnered with the National Climate Assessment, presented by the White House in May. It is expected to be the first of many state-level efforts to “downscale” global climate models, combining them with local knowledge and data. The new Vermont assessment gives a detailed portrait of the impacts of a warming world on the state’s landscapes and businesses—like more intense storms, an 80 percent increase in the likelihood of flooding, but also increased potential for short-term droughts this century.

The Vermont Climate Assessment was written by scientists at the University of Vermont, in collaboration with experts from the State of Vermont, meteorologists from the National Weather Service, as well as Vermont businesses, farmers, and non-profit organizations with local expertise and data.

“The climate has already changed substantially in Vermont,” said Gillian Galford, a climate scientist at UVM’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics and the lead author of the new report, “Spring is coming seven days earlier across the state — and that has happened in just the last three decades.”


Galford and her colleagues were able to report this by drawing on numerous types of data such as satellite observations and global climate models from NASA — combined with local sources like weather station records from across the state over decades, apple farmers’ records of tree blooms going back into the 1960s, and the ice-out date on Vermont’s famed Joe’s Pond.

Long the site of bets about which spring day it will melt, the pond’s ice breakup varies considerably from year to year, but its average has gotten earlier. “As a scientist, the Joe’s Pond ice-out date makes a beautiful trend,” Galford says, “as a person, I find it tragic that our climate is changing this rapidly.”

Top: Spring flooding in May 2011 swamped homes along Lake Champlain in Burlington during the first of two "100-year storms" that struck Vermont within four months (photo courtesy governor's office).

Middle: A house is washed away in Bethel by Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 (photo courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region).

Bottom: Vermont, the largest ski state East of the Rockies, enjoyed its third highest number of skier visits this past season, despite poor mid-season conditions, because skiing started early and ended late. Killington tree skiing March 2014 (courtesy of Killington).

However, some of the forecasts in the new assessment bode well for some businesses. A longer growing season may allow, for example, new types of European wine grapes to flourish. And Vermont’s ski industry may be able to look forward to a temporary climate change “sweet spot,” the report notes. The increasing precipitation that has been observed in Vermont in recent years is expected to continue, which means more snow in the next two or three decades. But, “winter precipitation will shift to rain in the next fifty years,” Galford said, as the state’s average temperature is projected to increase by more than five degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.

The Vermont Climate Assessment takes this kind of general data from global and national sources — like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the US Global Change Program — and gives them local detail: within the overall forecast of spiking temperatures and precipitation, the new report expects the largest increases in Vermont’s mountainous regions. Heavy rainfall events are also expected to become more common, threatening development in floodplains and driving pollution into Lake Champlain.

Until this new assessment, Vermont, like most other states, has not had a comprehensive examination of the economic impacts of climate change. “Some of the impacts in Vermont are going to present new opportunities that we can capitalize on in agriculture, recreation and tourism,” Galford said. “And there are 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.”

“This assessment is the first of its kind anywhere in the United States,” said Taylor Ricketts, the director of UVM’s Gund Institute that produced the Vermont Climate Assessment. It’s “rigorous research that integrates social and natural sciences,” he said, and, “this report will guide our state to be more resilient to the changes we now know are coming.”

Andy Nash from NOAA began the discussion on the science of climate change by displaying a graph that showed two things: Since 1888 Vermont has been getting consistently warmer and during that stretch weather variations have become more extreme.

"That's part of climate change," he said. "We have more heavy rain days than we used to."

He said looking across the nation that the Northeast is getting warmer and wetter, while the Southwest, and to a lesser extent the Southeast, is getting drier. He said here in Vermont that while there will be more rain, there will be spots of drought. With the growing season getting longer and starting earlier, the occasional spring drought could have a significant impact on agriculture.

Some of the graduate students who assisted in the UVM study presented a synopsis of their specific research results as part of the presentation.

Kristen Underwood spoke about the impact that both more rain and more sudden storms would have on farm fields and roads. Many of the speakers used Tropical Storm Irene as an example. When that storm struck, it washed out many bridges and roads, flooded farm fields and sent debris, silt and chemicals into the waterways. The cost of rebuilding the infrastructure from that one storm runs into the hundreds of millions. With that in mind, Underwood said, roads, bridges, and stormwater systems need to be constructed, or reconstructed, to account, especially, for high-volume events.

Sam Carlson said his research on travel and tourism elicited a "surprising outcome." The warmer, wetter weather will likely be good for tourism and in particular the ski industry for several decades. He said the ski season will last longer because mountain temperatures will remain cold and the increased precipitation will result in increased natural snow fall. (This past season, the third best on record, was just such a case; despite cold and icy conditions in the middle of winter, the ski season started earlier and lasted longer.)

Snowfall could be more similar to the heavy snows common in the 1930s and '40s, Carlson said. This "sweet spot" for skiing could last for a few decades before temperatures warm to the point that the mountain tops get rain instead of snow, which could mean the end of the ski industry.

But Carlson said it will not only be the ski industry that will benefit. The summers also will be longer as temperatures increase. As states south of Vermont get even warmer, Vermont might see more visitors flock to the Green Mountains to escape the summer heat down there, as they for decades before air conditioning.

In fall, the sugar maples will start to lose out to the more colorful red maples. That is likely to negatively impact the maple sugaring industry in the last winter/early spring, but could draw even more leaf peepers in autumn. Meanwhile, mud season in spring could be muddier, but it is not a tourism season in Vermont now.

Elizabeth Palchak focused on energy. During Irene, 10 percent of Vermont lost power. Because of the road washouts and damage to the distribution system (the big transmission lines escaped damage), getting the lights back on in some places was arduous. There will be more lightning storms with this type of weather, which could knock out power more regularly.

Palchak said that not only does the infrastructure need to be considered with this changing weather pattern, similar to the roadways, but technology and even individual behavior needs to change to help the situation.

Ultimately conservation, efficiency and local production through the use of solar panels in particular will make the grid less vulnerable. Technology could help monitor energy use, for instance.

Homeowner behavior could change if the state could "leverage the psyche of social norms." Such as, if several homeowners put solar panels on their roofs, then other neighbors will see that as the norm and want to keep-up-with-the-Joneses.

Speaking of solar energy, Palchak later said that the science does not have to enough data to determine if a warmer Vermont will be better for the solar industry. She said if there is more precipitation, it could be more cloudy overall and thus reduce solar generation. But warmer weather generally is associated with more sun, so while they have started to look at that more study needs to be done, she said.

Julie Nash presented the Agriculture and Food Systems chapter. This could be another industry that will benefit from warmer temperatures, for obvious reasons. There will be opportunities and challenges.

For instance, Nash said, the growing wine industry in Vermont could benefit from a climate that supports European grapes. Peaches might be a viable hand fruit grown in Vermont. The growing season for crops will be longer.

On the other hand, the hotter summer could impact dairy cows and their production. There will be earlier budding for apples, but buds and crop germination might face hard rains and flooding. There will be more pests, which has already been seen, as well as fungus and blight.

The last of the researchers was Ann Hoogenboom who talked about community development and a necessary change in lifestyle Vermonters would face, especially with the increase in rain storms.

Ann Hoogenboom, center, prepares to interview Win Smith, with Allie Straim from the Gund Institute, after the event. RELATED STORY: Vermont ski areas post 4.5 million visits, third best on record

Vermont's villages tend to lie in the valleys alongside rivers and streams. In the town she grew up in -- Moretown in Washington County -- Irene swamped the downtown with eight feet of water from the Mad River. Brattleboro to Wilmington, among others, experienced similar disasters because of Irene. All new and existing community and economic development will need to be considered in light of the changing climate. After the great flood of 1927, Vermont did just such a major infrastructure change by putting in a network of flood-control dams, which also served in many cases as reservoirs and hydro-electric facilities.

The "stakeholder" panelists at the event from government and business reiterated many of the points made by the researchers.

Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz mentioned that the downtowns along those waterways that Hoogenboom talked about have been built to channel the streams. These narrower channels result in faster, more damaging water with less ability to increase volume. She said the flood plains and forests need to be preserved and better used, though most of the forest land is in private hands. She said climate change could mean more people moving to Vermont as a safe haven from climate change, even, much as there was an influx after 9/11 seeking a safer place to live.

David Blittersdorf of AllEarth Renewables, does both wind and solar development, including the wind turbines on Georgia Mountain.

He said, "This report is a wakeup call." He said he drives a Prius "and we all do our little things" but it hardly moves the needle. What is needed, he said, is an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions, which means an 80 percent reduction in fossil fuel use. He said the nation needs to highly tax fossil fuels. He said the only way to change behavior will be to make it cost vastly more.

Sugarbush owner and CEO Win Smith said that while he does not agree with Blittersdorf on everything, he said energy efficiency needs to be improved. The ski areas are using much more efficient snow guns and have become one of the "greenest" industries in the country in every aspect of their business, because the two most expensive resources they have are the two most affected by climate -- water and energy. He said when Irene struck it took out his holding pond. If they had not been able to repair it in time, they could not have operated the ski area.

Ray Allen, whose family has owned and operated Allenholm farm on Grand Isle since 1870, quipped that he's all in favor of global warming because where his apple orchard was under the inland sea during the Ice Age.

What he is finding now is that he has an opportunity to change his business, which he said he must, but the new and old has been a struggle.

The apple trees are suffering from more fungus and because of the rainier conditions, he has to spray more, which he does not like to do. It requires more chemicals and it costs more. The fields are more difficult to drive through now that they're muddier. The cherry trees he recently planted like the warmer weather, but "don't like to have their feet wet," so he's put in more irrigation.

His business has also changed. The value of bulk apples has decreased, so now he and his wife wrap them in dough and sell them for a lot more. Pies and inviting people to "pick-ur-own" have increased the value-add of the apple orchards, he said.

Lastly, Doug Lantagne from the UVM Extension office said, "There's a business case for energy efficiency. It costs less." Vermont is almost carbon neutral as a state, he said, and is the third most forested state after Maine and Alaska. He said Vermont has many opportunities to both change and take advantage of the climate change.

The full report and detailed information on the Vermont Climate Assessment may be found online at

Stakeholders Markowitz, Blittersdorf, Smith, Allen and Lantagne. All conference photos by Vermont Business Magazine.

Fabian Earthmoving demolishes a Center Rutland home destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. Courtesy of Fabian.

Source: UVM 6.10.2014. VBM