Wednesday January 9, 2013

When we talk about the Vermont "way of life," guns are only part of the picture. Two more universally embraced and much more wholesome features of the Vermont way of life are winter sports and the production of maple syrup.

Though both activities are still very much in evidence, our warming climate may greatly reduce their prevalence in coming decades.

The latest evidence of this comes in a report released on Tuesday shows that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the U.S., eclipsing the average annual temperature record set in 1998 by a full degree.

Scientists say that breaking temperature records by a full degree is unprecedented, with such records normally broken by only around a tenth of a degree, according to an Associated Press article about the report.

The new record average U.S. temperature in the lower 48 states was 55.32 degrees Fahrenheit in 2012. In all, 19 states set yearly average heat records in 2012, including Vermont (46.29 degrees), New York (49.01 degrees), Massachusetts (51.06 degrees), and New Hampshire (47.19 degrees).

Scientists say the temperature record is in part global warming from man-made greenhouse gas emissions, part natural weather variations. Indications are that temperature changes are happening faster than expected. "These records do not occur like this in an unchanging climate," said Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., quoted by the AP. "And they are costing many billions of dollars.


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Think of the severe drought that hurt crops in the West and Midwest in 2012. Think of the warm ocean waters in the North Atlantic that fueled Hurricane Sandy and the destruction it wreaked in late October in New Jersey and New York. Think of the extreme rains that came from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

In Vermont and neighboring Northeastern states, climate change threatens the long-term health of the ski and snowboarding industry. Meager snowfall last winter -- the fourth-warmest on record since 1896 -- forced half of the nation's ski areas to open late and nearly half to close early, according to an article last month in the New York Times on rising temperatures and the ski industry.

"Whether this winter turns out to be warm or cold, scientists say that climate change means the long-term outlook for skiers everywhere is bleak. The threat of global warming hangs over almost every resort, from Sugarloaf in Maine to Squaw Valley in California," the article states. "As temperatures rise, analysts predict that scores of the nation's ski centers, especially those at lower elevations and latitudes, will eventually vanish."

As for maple syrup, research shows that stresses from climate change may over time decrease the availability of maple syrup or push production areas northward. Furthermore, studies by the U.S. Forest Service show that rising temperatures from climate change will reduce the amount of acceptable habitat for maple trees over time -- and what maple trees there are will likely be more stressed and less productive.

We have probably reached a point where human-caused global warming cannot be reversed but only slowed. Vermonters can be happy they live in a state which takes climate change seriously and seeks to be a model for the rest of the country in greenhouse gas emission reduction and energy efficiency, just as it is leading the way in developing and implementing single-payer health care.

We can only hope that the rest of the country will come around and follow suit, for our traditional rural way of life -- and much else -- is put at risk by a rapidly warming environment.