Driving down route 14 in mid-October, it’s hard not to let your eyes wander and take in the beauty of the changing colors. The vibrant oranges, yellows, and red leaves mixed in with the Douglas Ferns is an iconic site in Vermont that brings thousands of “leaf peepers” from all over the country to the Green Mountain state. Along with the colorful scenery, people come to Vermont for their maple syrup, skiing, hiking, camping, some of the country’s best craft beers, and to experience life, simplified. But climate change may pose a threat to Vermont’s main economic engine, the tourism industry, and the lifestyle that typifies Vermont.
Vermont’s climate is changing, with increased temperatures and unpredictable precipitation patterns. The rising temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns are going to increase the intensity of floods and droughts in the state. The average annual precipitation in the Northeast increased 10 percent from 1895 to 2011, and precipitation from heavier storms increased 70 percent since 1958. For example, in 2011, Tropical Storm Irene was a 1-in-1,000 year storm that caused major flooding and damaged infrastructure across Vermont. After Irene, Vermont passed legislation to increase the government’s role in flood response and launched a series of websites to make residents aware of its programs. Some municipalities bought out homeowners in the worst devastation zones to prevent future damage. Roads and bridges where rebuilt to withstand future floods for similar sized storms. The state’s major utility, Green Mountain Power, is working to decentralize the grid to make power outages easier to contain and recover. Vermont responded with preparedness planning and a commitment to make Vermont strong, but this is more difficult because of the increasing uncertainty associated with climate change and its’ impacts.
In the next century, the average precipitation is likely to increase during winter and spring, with no change in the summer or fall. These climate shifts will cause changes in Vermont’s ecosystems, agriculture industry, human health, and winter tourism, and will impact the lives of Vermonters.
The changing climate threatens Vermont’s ecosystems in a variety of ways. The increased temperatures cause wildflowers, trees, and migratory birds to bloom and arrive earlier during the springtime. Species that have not adjusted to these changes face increased competition for their primary food sources with species that have adapted to the warmer temperatures. Lastly, climate change could also change the temperatures of the streams, causing the streams to run dry and harm the brook trout and brown trout populations. The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department (VFWD) are currently managing both types of trout with monitoring and evaluating the existing trout populations. The VFWD will participate in stocking techniques if they determine the fish populations are too high or low in certain areas.
Climate change will also impact the Vermont agriculture industry, from cattle and dairy cows to maple syrup. Vermont’s dairy industry provides 70 percent of the state’s farm revenue, and climate change may reduce the output by $700 million. The higher temperatures will cause the cows to eat less, thus producing less milk. The warmer temperatures are shifting sugar maples farther into Canada, affecting both the maple syrup and tourism industry. The Vermont Climate Assessment project states that by the end of the century, the northeastern forest will be dominated by oaks and hickories, with the maples and other trees driven north. Both the dairy and agriculture industry are doing their part to help reduce the impacts of climate change. Vermont’s agriculture and dairy are mitigating greenhouse gas emission, reducing organic waste, and using methane recovery technology to do their part. Dairy and agriculture operations are doing this through the installation of anaerobic digesters on their land, which not only help mitigate GHGs and reduce organic waste, but also can provide a sustainable energy source for on-site needs.
Climate change will also amplify effects on the human health in Vermont, especially children, the elderly, the sick, and the poor. The warmer weather will increase disease-carrying insect populations and certain respiratory conditions. For example, ticks carrying Lyme disease will become active earlier with the warmer winters, lengthening the season and increasing the potential for transmission. The Vermont Department of Health is attempting to prevent the increased spread of disease through educational outreach on how to prevent tick bites.
Lastly, climate change will have a significant impact on winter tourism in Vermont. The warmer winters could bring more rain and less snow to Vermont. Declined snowfall amounts would shorten the ski season, severely impacting the economy. With shorter ski seasons, “ski resorts” are transitioning to “adventure resorts,” diversifying their portfolios and offering “off-season” activities (e.g., mountain biking, fly fishing, festivals, concerts) to make up for lost days.
The very way of life that typifies Vermont is undergoing transition due to the already occurring, and anticipated, impacts of warmer winters, increasing precipitation, and droughts. In true Vermont fashion, the impacts of climate change have been met with a resilient and industrious response from various sectors. But this Brave Little State still has room to shift from a response-based approach to proactive planning so it can continue to thrive in the future.