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Changes in our climate mean shorter, milder winters for Maine. As part of our ongoing climate conversations, the Bangor Daily News hosted a discussion last Thursday about how these changes can impact Maine.
The online conversation with University of Maine Climate Change Institute research assistant professor Sean Birkel, professor Jessica Leahy from the University of Maine’s School of Forest Resources, Appalachian Mountain Club research director Sarah Nelson, and New England Outdoor Center founder and owner Matthew Polstein was an interesting one that you can watch online.
One of the exchanges we’d like to highlight came in response to an audience question. The gist: If Maine winters are getting shorter and milder, isn’t that potentially a good thing? Does that make Maine a more attractive destination?
“I want personally to be offended and upset by climate change because it’s driven by man, and as someone who loves mother earth, I find that a bit of an affront. We have an opportunity to do better, we should be doing better,” Polstein responded, adding that he’s been reminded that Maine was covered by glacial ice as recently as 12,000-15,000 years ago, a relatively brief period in geologic time. “So we’re an environment that has seen dramatic upheaval in its climate and its landscape. I think we will survive it.”
Earlier in the event, Polstein discussed how more volatile and inconsistent conditions during the winter have led to adaptations at his business and in the Millinocket area generally, including having to improve and move trails for cross country skiing and snowmobiling. NEOC has also worked to diversify its winter recreation options, he said.
“The sort of social aspect of whether we’re upset with [climate change] or happy with it, is probably a personal decision people make,” Polstein continued. “For me, personally, I’m not happy with it because I’m not happy that it’s driven by man’s actions, when man has the opportunity to slow it down.”
Leahy, who co-authored a recent study that found the Maine snowmobile industry directly generated more than $450 million during the 2018-19 season, emphasized adaptation and collective action.
“It’s not for the scientists alone to respond to this,” Leahy said. “There’s something that we all can do. And if you’re a tourism business, then adapting is probably the best thing that you can do for your societal role because it benefits rural communities, there’s all these other good things. So, ‘good’ is a hard word.”
Birkel also serves as the state climatologist and is involved with the Maine Climate Council charged with developing a 4-year state climate action plan.
“In a way, it can make a person upset to know how significant the impact that we humans are having on the climate, and also the environment. There are many environmental challenges that are sourced by human activity. And I think that Jessica made a good point, that adaptation is something that we can do — if somebody who has a business, by adapting and making sure their business can continue, and helping themselves make a living that way, can I think help cope with the situation.”
“And then more broadly, there’s the mitigation factor: what can we do to reduce emissions, reduce our impact,” Birkel continued. “So I think each of us has to consider what we can do, what we’re capable of doing, what resources we have to adapt and to mitigate, how we can contribute, and come to some sort of … accepting the situation as it is and being able to move forward in a constructive way. And to try and not get too frustrated and down on the situation and the things we cannot control. But there are many things we can do to contribute.”
Nelson, who has co-authored multiple recent papers on how climate change is impacting winters in the northeast, cited past work to address the impacts of acid rain as one example of successful action.
“I think there’s a great example, success story that involves Maine related to acid rain. In many ways a similar issue where it was accelerated emissions from burning fossil fuels in the northeast, that we were receiving from largely out of state, that drove the acid rain issue in New England and especially in Maine,” Nelson said. “And through the Clean Air Act and Clean Air Act amendments those emissions were cut significantly, I believe it’s something like a 90 percent decline that we’ve seen in those pollutants coming out of smokestacks. I also study lakes and mercury contamination, and in terms of acid rain I just did an analysis, and all but one of 90-some-odd mountain ponds around the region declined very significantly in terms of the key acid rain component.”
Taken together, these answers to just one of the questions at last week’s event emphasize the need to recognize the very real impacts of climate change, while keeping them in perspective, and to look for opportunities to adapt and to address the underlying causes of these changes. We’ll be continuing this conversation with other local experts on Nov. 12, with a focus on how climate change is impacting farming and forestry in Maine.