Waffles or pancakes, it’s an age-old debate that will never come to an end. But one thing almost everyone can agree on is that no matter which you pick, you’re guaranteed to need syrup to go with it. In places like Vermont, Maple syrup is a staple; so much so that Vermont Law School even sent out a bottle of it with its welcome packages. In 2018, Vermont produced over 38% of the maple syrup around the United States and in 2017, the maple industry was valued at $140 million. Maple is Vermont’s fourth largest value added agricultural export, employing around three thousand people. Value added agriculture is a product that goes through a physical transformation. Climate change could significantly affect maple syrup production in Vermont.
Maple syrup starts as sap. During the summer months, sugar is made in the maple leaves and then stored as starch in the roots. It is stored all through the winter and during “sugaring weather,” around late February or early March you can begin to tap the trees. Maple syrup production is directly tied to the weather. Sap is made through the process of starch being turned back into sugar and mixing with the groundwater. Sap will only begin to flow when the temperature gets above freezing during the day and drops below freezing at night (freezing and thawing cycle). The differential between the day and night temperature is what creates the pressure that pushes the sap out of the tree.
The most notable change in maple production is the timeframe sugar-makers have to harvest the sap from their trees. Warmer temperatures mean a shorter and more un-predictable sugaring season. A shorter season affects sap production by reducing the number of freezing and thawing cycles, meaning the maple trees produce less sap.
Every year, more than half of northeastern sugar maples are covered by a blanket of snow 8 inches deep or more. This is significant because maple trees also rely on snow to protect their roots from freezing. Snow helps insulate the ground and provides moisture to the trees, which helps make the sap. Higher temperatures due to climate change mean less snow fall, and less water for the trees to take up to convert into sap. Less snowfall also means that maple forests will not grow as much. This not only poses a problem for people who love maple syrup; it also means that there is less carbon dioxide being absorbed by trees, keeping it trapped in the atmosphere. Trees pull in about 5% – 30% of America’s CO2 emissions.
In the short term, new technologies, like vacuum, tapping, and tubing sanitation, have increased maple production in recent years. Vacuum systems have made sap collecting more efficient for sugar makers to harvest their trees during tough climate conditions. The worry is that the optimal conditions that make the maple industry will disappear completely. Although the future looks grim for the maple industry, there is still time for the world to change and reduce the effects of climate change.