'On Thin Ice': Maine's winter heritage impacted by global warming?

Posted Wednesday, March 28, 2012 in Investigation

'On Thin Ice': Maine's winter heritage impacted by global warming?

Emmie Theberge of Augusta caught this brown trout on Cobbossee Lake in January 2011, NRCM photo.

AUGUSTA — Although many of us were rejoicing that we didn't have to shovel nearly as much, and in recent days even broke out shorts and T-shirts and headed for the beach, Maine's warm winter does come at a high cost.

Near-record warmth in the winter of 2011-2012 left wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts and the businesses in winter-based sectors scrambling to adapt — and it’s just a preview of what’s to come in a warming world, according to a new report from the National Wildlife Federation. On Thin Ice: Warming Winters Put America’s Hunting and Fishing Heritage at Risk tells the stories of how 2011-2012’s warm winter impacted hunters and anglers across America. 

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency released draft rules under the Clean Air Act that would limit climate-changing carbon pollution from power plants. As with other aspects of the Clean Air Act, there will likely be enormous pressure on Congress from the coal industry and its allies to impede real action to address carbon pollution. This past “winter” and the March 27 report indicate Maine can ill afford to ignore the changing climate until it is too late.

“Climate change is here, it’s hurting our outdoor traditions, and it’s past time for our elected officials to take action to cut climate-changing carbon pollution,” said Lisa Pohlmann, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “Climate change is a threat to Maine’s economy. Hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching support thousands of jobs and generate $1.3 billion in economic activity every year, and snow-dependent sports contribute too.” 

This winter illustrated the problems that mild and low-snow winters can have on Maine people, including:

Earlier this month, the Bangor Daily News reported that the mild winter weather had eaten into L.L.Bean’s sales of skis, coats, and other outdoor gear. In the story, Bean spokeswoman Carolyn Beem was quoted as saying, “When you have a winter that was as dramatically un-winterlike as this one, then it does have a definite impact on the business.” With its 5,000 employees, the company is one of Maine’s largest employers.

Along the Kennebec River, the economic pinch is felt by owners of smelt camps and local businesses. Sonny, owner of Sonny’s Smelt Camps in Richmond, says, “The ice came two weeks late and the first two weeks are generally the best ice-fishing for smelt. That really hurt me and I’m just breaking even now. Not only did we have a late start, we had to close three weeks early. We only got about three and a half to four weeks this winter.”

Roger Knight of Knight’s Bait Shop in Raymond agrees, “We just didn’t have the ice we normally do. It’s really hurting all the businesses up here.”

“Over the last few years, and particularly in the winter, Maine Huts & Trails has seen significant growth in the number of visitors to our system,” said David Herring, executive director of Maine Huts & Trails. “That growth was definitely slowed this winter due to the lack of snow. Our winter season never really gained the momentum we needed it to this year and we saw decreases in visitors in January, February, and March compared to the same three months in 2011. We are currently crafting plans to ensure we do everything we can to make up for our budget shortfall in the remainder of the year with a strong emphasis on the summer and fall tourism months.”

“The way I see it, global warming wrecked my duck season,” said Sam Day, a youth hunter from Hallowell. “This year, the incredibly warm temperatures made Maine’s duck-hunting season the worst I’ve experienced. The warmer winters have messed with our waterfowl migration. I wonder what it will be like 30 years from now? I am very concerned about the impacts of global warming on hunting in Maine.”

Well-known Maine Guide and longtime outdoor writer Stu Bristol has never seen anything like it. “Many of the better-known winter ice-fishing derbies have been canceled,” he said. “And take a look at the Maine 'Pike. There aren’t any snow machines on trailers headed north these Friday afternoons. Our whole economy is being impacted by the mild temperatures this winter.”

Sebago Lake Rotary Club’s annual mid-winter fishing derby brings up to 10,000 fishermen to the lake. Rotarian and derby organizer Tom Noonan said this is the fourth winter since 2002 that the derby had to be canceled due to quickly deteriorating ice conditions.

“I know when my granddad made syrup commercially in the ‘60s and early ‘70s they always planned on making syrup around the 12th or 15th of March,” says Rodney Hall, owner of Hall Farms Maple Products in East Dixfield. “We’re probably two weeks earlier now. And with this mild winter, our season ended three weeks ahead of schedule. Last year we made over 1,000 gallons of syrup, and this year we made about half that. I’m worried about these warming winters not just for my business, but also because they threaten the outdoor tradition of tapping maple trees.”

“This year the ski season is drawing to an unseasonably early end,” said Paul Marshall, a member of the ski patrol at Sunday River. “We’ve had to close some trails almost a month earlier than last year. Just two weeks ago, we had 100 percent of our trails open. And less than a week later we had to shut down nearly half of them.”

“Warmer winters are a serious problem for those of us in the forest-products industry,” said Harry Dwyer, a 30-year veteran logger, licensed forester, and certified master logger. “We need cold weather and snow cover to have a good logging season, but the back-and-forth freezing and thawing this winter made it very difficult to take on work. We only had about four straight weeks of real winter conditions instead of the usual 14. This eats into our income and means there is less work for loggers. In the last eight or so years, the tick population is also so rampant that it has introduced a new hazard to our work. In addition, mud season can come any time of year now — both at the beginning of the season since fall rains are increasing, and at the end when the frost melts. We can’t get out to work when it is that wet. Landowners won’t tolerate two-foot ruts across their property.”

"We have been seeing the effects of climate change on Maine winters for many years," said Gordon Hamilton, associate professor and glaciologist from the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. "Unusual weather patterns are likely to become the norm due to changes in climate altering the trajectories of the jet stream and storm tracks."

According to  NOAA’s records for Portland:

And nationwide NOAA says:

Other issues are also likely to become problems as the warmer season wears on. The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is warning of a greater risk of ticks and tick-borne disease, such as Lyme disease, because not all ticks were killed by the winter weather. Although the U.S, Geological Survey, which is a member of the Cooperative Snow Survey in Maine, is concerned about the low snowpack, Greg Stewart cautions that much of Maine's recharge for groundwater comes from rainfall in the early spring. If we also have a dry spring, that may spell problems for Maine's well system and even surface water systems, especially in the southern part of the state. A serious threat for coastal residents may be saltwater intrusion if that should happen. 

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