Report says northeast temperatures rising
06/18/09 7:34AM By John Dillon  Download MP3
(Host) A White House report on climate change says two of Vermont's iconic industries are in trouble: winter sports and maple sugaring.
As winters get warmer, the New England forest will change. And if greenhouse gas emissions stay high, the study warns that the prime area for maple production will shift north into Canada.
VPR's John Dillon reports:
(Dillon) Work on the climate change report began under the Bush Administration. Thirteen federal agencies participated in the research, and it was released this week at a White House news conference.
Jerry Melillo of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts is one of the lead authors of the study. Melillo spelled out what would happen in New England if greenhouse gas pollution is not controlled.
(Melillo) Under higher emissions maple trees are expected to decline rapidly in the Northeast, perhaps spelling the end of maple sugaring all together in this part of the U.S. many winter recreation opportunities, like ice fishing, skiing, snowmobiling and the like will disappear with rising temperatures. Those losses will affect the region's economy and its quality of life.
(Dillon) The White House report projects future trends based on observations of a world that's already warming. Since 1970, the report says, average annual temperatures have increased by 2 degrees in the Northeast.
Researchers at the University of Vermont looked at historical records and found that climate change has made the sugaring season shorter.
Dr. Timothy Perkins directs UVM's Proctor Maple Research Lab.
(Perkins) The first sap run or the first production period is happening about a week earlier than it was 40 years ago. At the opposite end, the season is ending about 10 days earlier. So over that 40 year time period we've lost about three days of the season. That doesn't seem like a lot until you realize that the maple production season averages about 30 days in length. So we've lost about 10 percent of the season.
(Dillon) Perkins says that improvements in technology have so far made up for the fewer days of sap flow. Sugarmakers are tapping earlier, and they use smaller taps that work longer and inflict less stress on the trees.
(Perkins) Some of the possible loss of production due to what we've seen with global warming so far has probably been largely offset by changes in sap collection technology. So we use a lot more vacuum, replaceable spout tips that are very sanitary that keep the sap flowing for a longer period of time so we can make higher yields.
(Dillon) While the future is a concern, conditions this spring were perfect. Vermont producers made 2.3 million gallons of the sweet stuff, a 22 percent increase from the year before. Prices were good, too, so sugarmakers enjoyed a banner year.
(Marsh) I don't do this for a living!
(Dillon) In Cambridge, sugarmaker Rick Marsh is tending to an off season chore: painting the side of his retail store on Route 15.
Marsh is the president of Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association. The operation has been in his family for a century. And he says change is the one constant in the sugaring business.
(Marsh) Last couple of years have been pretty good, couple of years before that we had warm winters. The global change, we are worried about it.
(Dillon) Successful sugaring depends on a precise combination of healthy trees, cold nights and warmer days. It takes about 50 years for a tree to be big enough, so sugar makers have to take the long view.
(Marsh) We're working with Mother Nature. It's not only the global warming, but we also have the Asian Long Horned Beetle; we have the forest tent caterpillar about on an every 10 to 15 years cycle comes through. We can't stop all together because of it, but it's one more thing we have to work on and keep our eyes close to.
(Dillon) And Marsh will be paying attention to the issue. His son has started to work on the operation, and Marsh would like to see sugaring continue in his family for generations.
For VPR News, I'm John Dillon.