The Fallout

Alpine flowers, such as Diapensia lapponica, Rhododendron lapponicum, and Loiseleuria procumbens could disappear from our mountain tops if the climate-change models prove correct.Photo by Gustav W. Verderber

Climate change will affect far more than tree species in the northern Forest. it will likely have profound effects on the forest-based businesses and recreational activities that provide the economic and emotional richness so many of us who live here enjoy. an article of even twice this scope could not adequately address all the potential effects on the forestry and fishing, milling and mountain-climbing, biomass burning and birdwatching that characterize the region. Here, however, is a thumbnail digest of predicted effects as gleaned from the reporting for this story.

Woods business. Here, a world of natural variables meets the unpredictability of human behavior. a few possibilities:

Changes in forest cover will push the paper industry toward a different mix of papers, as the size of the spruce and fir forest shrinks and is replaced by hardwoods. But the relative abundance of water, which can be used both for power and as a necessary manufacturing ingredient, may actually make some papermaking more attractive. Small, smart, energy-savvy mills may find a way to do good business. While older northeastern pulp mills will have a difficult time competing against southern U.S. and South American mills, they may have a strategic advantage if cellulosic ethanol integrated with pulpmaking becomes a reality. The reason: no new pulp mills are likely to be built in the U.S., and it makes better sense to retrofit the older mills than the newer southern mills.

Biomass plants, meanwhile, may become more attractive since a wide variety of tree species can be burned, overall tree growth rates will probably rise, and renewable energy will become ever more desirable. This expanded market for wood could be good if it helps make it profitable to remove low-value wood as a key to forest management, but bad if it encourages over-harvesting or the conversion of diverse forest ecosystems into monoculture plantations.

The certainty of change means that the woods industry will need to adapt intelligently and flexibly. The ability to mill, manufacture, and market the full spectrum of species will be vital. The region’s increasing wetness (and therefore productivity) might create possibilities not found in other parts of a country that will grow drier and hotter.

Sugaring. research done by Tim Perkins at the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple research Center has shown that the average number of productive sugaring days in new England has decreased. Does this mean sugarmaking will eventually disappear? The hotter, faster models say yes. The others say: not completely. The concern is not so much that the maples will disappear as that the window of sugaring weather – nights in the 20s, days in the 40s – will shrink so much and become so erratic that the industry can’t sustain itself. “There may be some hobbyists making maple syrup” in 100 years, said Perkins. “But it won’t be made commercially.”

Foliage. The future of leaf peeping is even more uncertain, for the relationship between weather and foliage is poorly understood. Fall frosts, which play a key role in both the onset and vibrancy of fall foliage, will probably come later, but it’s not known whether this will really affect color. and the color mix will be far different – pretty, though less so to many eyes – if the maples are replaced by oaks and hickories. Best guess: in 50 years, still ablaze; in 200, dimmer and duller.

Fishing. Even though overall groundwater supplies may be boosted by winter rains, the hotter, drier summer streams will stress fish of every species. Coldwater species – trout and salmon – will likely be driven to higher tributaries and to the few lakes deep enough to stay cool.

Hiking. our alpine areas – those small but precious tundra zones atop our higher ranges – may shrink to almost nothing. This would decrease biodiversity and dismay many hikers.

Skiing. Snow sports will suffer horribly. The leading models predict the snow season will shrink by 25 to 50 percent and be punctuated even more often by rain. a 100- day ski season is generally considered necessary for a profitable industry; ours will shrink to 50 to 75 days, and the temperatures will likely be too warm to augment the snowpack with snowmaking. “only western Maine,” concludes the NECIA report, “is projected to retain a reliable ski season.”

Development pressure. With the rest of the country growing even hotter and drier, the pressure in the northern Forest for new houses and infrastructure will almost surely continue to increase. Boston and new York City, for instance, now experience 10 to15 days per year with temperatures over 90°F; by 2100, they could have more than 2 months of weather that hot, with 14 to 28 days over 100°F. To urban residents, the north Woods may look better than ever.


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