Energy & Environment

Climate change: Vermont’s hotter, wilder weather is already here

Burr Morse of Morse Farm Sugarworks in Montpelier talks about how he decided to close the cross country ski center on his property because the winter weather was too unpredictable. He attributes the warmer winters to climate change. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Seventh-generation Vermonter Burr Morse stood on an overgrown trail flanked by goldenrod and reflected on his family’s decision to shutter their cross country ski center last winter. 

The Morse family stopped milking cows at their East Montpelier farm back in 1966. Burr returned to the farm after graduating from the University of Vermont in 1971. For two decades, he and his wife “eked out a living” farming the hilltop soil. “My father had a vision that buses might come to this place, people wanting to learn more about maple syrup.” 

That vision came true, judging by the two tour buses in the parking lot at Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks on a late summer afternoon. For central Vermont leaf-peepers, the farm is a must stop for maple candies, a gallon jug of Vermont liquid gold or the always popular maple creemee. 

But the 71-year-old Morse sees signs of trouble ahead. 

Morse said he’s seen an “overage of weak sugar years” in the past two to three decades because of nights that don’t get cold enough. “We’ve seen a lot of years where we wish we’d had a little cooler March and April sugar season.” 

He was quick to point out that Vermont’s overall maple syrup production has been on the rise, attributed to more overall taps and technological improvements, like vacuum tubing, which Burr’s son, Tom, recently put in place. . 

“I think a lot of sugar makers would say ‘oh I went to vacuum because I wanted to get more sap,’” said Morse. “But I think sugar makers generally went to vacuum to counter the weather that wasn’t always working the way that it used to.”

Last winter, the Morse family decided to stop operating their cross country ski center with 15 miles of trails. 

The economics, he said, weren’t working, despite strong demand, partly because of the less predictable weather. 

“We had a lot of families that were willing to come up here and pay $200 a year or whatever it was for season tickets,” he said. “But were we able to keep any of that money, and/or pay landowners whose land we used any money, including myself? No.” 

Unlike downhill ski areas with snowmaking guns, cross country sites are more dependent on Mother Nature.

“We had years…that we had to shut her down in January because we lost the snow and we never could start it back up,” said Morse.

Discussions about climate change can feel futuristic: will humans be able to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decade? How soon will sea level rise inundate cities like Miami?

But scientists say that the effects of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions, which have made the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide to be significantly higher than in the past 800,000 years, are already being felt

And the Northeast is considered a “warming hot spot,” according to a recent Washington Post analysis of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration temperature data. 

“Colorful autumn foliage, winter recreation, and summer vacations in the mountains or at the beach are all important parts of the Northeast’s cultural identity, and this tourism contributes billions of dollars to the regional economy,” the scientists behind the Northeast section of a recent National Climate Assessment write in the report’s introduction. “The seasonal climate, natural systems, and accessibility of certain types of recreation are threatened by declining snow and ice, rising sea levels, and rising temperatures.”  

The following are some of the key ways Vermont’s climate is changing. Unless otherwise noted, statistics are from the 2014 Vermont Climate Assessment, a report by the University of Vermont Gund Institute for Ecological Economics modelled after the National Climate Assessment

Average annual temps on the rise

Vermont’s average annual temperature has gone up by 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit since 1895

Since 2000, Vermont has had roughly seven days a year when the average temperature is 87 degrees or higher, according to the state Health Department. Climate models predict that number will double to 15-20 days per year by 2050. 

The consequences of more so-called “hot days” in the Green Mountain state can be significant. When the average temperature around the state climbs to 87 degrees or higher, Vermonters are at a greater risk for heat-related illnesses and even death, according to a Health Department report. At 87 degrees, emergency room visits for heat-related complaints increase eightfold.

Last July was the hottest month on record in Burlington. Four Vermonters died during the early July heatwave last summer. Vermont has had between zero to two heat-related deaths a year over the past decade, said Jared Ulmer, state climate and health program manager.

“A lot of the people that were affected during the heatwave were older adults that didn’t have air conditioning at home, (who) oftentimes lived alone,” he said. 

The health department has been partnering with organizations that work with elderly people to train staff to recognize heat-related symptoms and do “routine safety checks.” There also have been conversations with the state’s energy efficiency utilities about providing a cooling assistance program, said Ullmer.

“We have a lot of resources in place already for keeping people warm in the winter,” he said. “And we don’t really have the parallel to do that for the summer.” 

Vermont winters are warming more than twice as fast as summers. Since 1960, summers have been warming by .4 degrees per decade, while winters have been warming by .9 degrees per decade. 

Burlington’s winters have warmed by 7 degrees since 1970 – the largest increase of any of the U.S. cities examined in an analysis of data from the National Central for Environmental Information by research group Climate Central.  

One reason is that less snow cover means more heat is absorbed into the ground.

“Basically, snow cover acts as a climate switch,” said Alan Betts, an atmospheric researcher who contributed to the 2014 climate assessment. “Here in Vermont, if there’s snow on the ground, it’s roughly 10 (degrees) Fahrenheit colder because of the reflection of sunlight than without snow on the ground.” 

Vermont has seen a 20% decrease in the number of “freeze days” — when the minimum temperature goes down to 28 degrees Fahrenheit or below — since the 1940s. Vermont’s rivers and lakes have been frozen seven fewer days per decade. Since 1816, there has been a steady increase in the number of years in a decade when the state’s largest lake has not frozen over, according to the Lake Champlain Committee. 

Less severe winters mean Vermont’s growing season has increased by 3.7 days per decade over the past 40 years. 

From 1970-2000, most of Vermont was in the USDA hardiness zone 4; from 1980-2010, Southern Vermont has dipped into zone 5 has crept into the lower half of the state, according to a NOAA analysis. By 2040, the state is projected to be almost entirely in zone 5, with the area south of Route 4 in zone 6.

“We may be able to do better with things like peaches and melons that traditionally like a lot of heat,” said Joshua Faulkner, head of UVM Extension’s farming and climate change program.

More rain, snow and floods expected

Since 1960, average annual precipitation in Vermont has gone up by 5.9 inches, with almost half of that increase occurring since 1990.  

And Vermont is seeing more high intensity storms. From 1960-1980, the state had an average of 4 days a year with rainfall greater than one inch. In the last two decades, Vermont has had an average of 7 days per year with more than an inch of rainfall. 

In the last 10 years, Vermont had 17 federal disaster declarations — up from 12 the decade before and 10 in the 1990s. After Tropical Storm Irene damaged more than 500 miles of roads and washed out 200 bridges and flooded 20,000 acres of farmland, Vermonters began to rethink their relationship to the waterways where many of the state’s villages, towns and roads were built along.

In the wake of Irene, close to 150 homes and businesses in flood-prone areas in Vermont were bought out, mostly with federal money. 

““Flooding happens basically every year and…when we go through the analytic process, flooding is our state’s number one objective hazard,” said Ben Rose, recovery and mitigation section chief for the state’s emergency management division. 

Deborah Markowitz, who was head of the state Agency of Natural Resources from 2011-2017, said that climate change also contributes to Vermont’s ongoing water quality challenges. 

The Upper Covered Bridge over Cox Brook in Northfield Falls was one of many covered bridges in the state damaged by Irene. VTD/Josh Larkin
The Upper Covered Bridge over Cox Brook in Northfield Falls was one of many covered bridges in the state damaged by Irene. VTD/Josh Larkin

“The more you have those extreme weather events, the more you have water rushing through, scouring riverbanks and…it’s loaded with nutrients and it rushes into the lakes,” she said. 

In recent years, more emphasis has been placed on ensuring rivers can overflow into undeveloped floodplains and wetlands to mitigate the flood risk in downstream villages and towns. 

A rapidly warming Arctic has contributed to extreme weather events like wildfires, droughts and flooding. 

“With the melting Arctic ice, it’s causing a slower jet stream that then buckles and you’re getting all these (weather) systems that get stuck over one particular area,” said Vermont meteorologist Roger Hill. 

Hill, who does weather hazard forecasting for utilities and WDEV, said the state has also been seeing more wet snow, which is linked to warming ocean temperatures. Wetter snowstorms can lead to more power lines coming down, causing outages. 

“Further to the north and interior parts of New England…we’re used to having a snowfall that is going to be medium-dry,” he said. “And so if we get a big blizzard with wet snow and the temperature not too far from 32 degrees, we’re in big trouble.” 

Last November, a heavy, wet snowstorm caused more than 97,000 customers of the state’s largest electrical utility, Green Mountain Power, to lose power. 

Joshua Faulkner, who coordinates UVM Extension’s farming and climate change program, said Vermonter farmers are already having to contend with “more saturated” soils that have proven challenging for planting. 

Joshua Faulkner is farming and climate change program coordinator for the University of Vermont Agricultural Extension. Courtesy photo

“Due to heavy rainfall, extreme storms, we see a lot of soil loss,” he said. “That’s damaging to the farm and farmer but also a big part of why we have water quality challenges.” 

Faulkner sees promise in perennial crops, like hay or orchards, which can soak-up more water. 

Cold winters part of warming trend

Climate change deniers, including President Trump, will sometimes point to recent cold winters as evidence that human-generated greenhouse gas emissions are not influencing the climate, despite 97% of the scientific community saying otherwise

“We’ve had quite a few winters in the last five or seven where there’s been this cold air over the eastern and central United States coming from the Arctic,” said Betts.

Somewhat counterintuitively, warming in the Arctic is contributing to cold winters in Vermont. Scientists think that warm air released from the Arctic oceans could be weakening the polar vortex, causing frigid air to spill south more often.

“What ends up happening is all that Arctic air mass then comes out in the lower latitudes,” said Hill. “And that’s when we get our big Nor’easters. And that’s (part of the reason) why we had a cold winter last winter.” 

Vermont has had more overall snowfall, especially in the mountains  — a trend scientists predict is likely to continue for the next two decades, before that snow starts to turn increasingly to rain. 

But cumulative snow depth in Vermont has been declining. The “snow season” in the Green Mountains has decreased by 8 days, according to a New York Times data analysis.

“Snowfall is showing increasing variability, with record snowfall and much lower than average snow falls coming year to year,” write the authors of the 2014 Vermont Climate Assessment.

Ry Young, a third-generation Mad River Glen skier who is now the head coach of the mountain’s freeskiing team, said he’s seen the snowline “sort of creeping up” the mountain. 

“Generally speaking, over the past however many years we’ve just seen a lot more…violent temperature swings, going from negative temperatures to plus 50 degrees within a couple days time,” he said.

Young said the temperature shifts and increased rain and snow have led Mad River Glen to update drainage systems. The ski area has also updated its limited snowmaking to help “bridge the gap” on the lower elevations. 

Skiers and snowboarders at Sugarbush ski resort. Photo by Mark Johnson/VTDigger

And there’s been dramatic fluctuations in the length of ski seasons at Mad River Glen in recent years.

“Three years ago, we had a really bad winter and I think we operated for under 50 days,” he said. “And then last year, we set a record and had our longest season ever, like 140, 138 days.”

Win Smith, owner of Sugarbush Resort, said it’s hard to say what the impact of climate change has been so far at the mountain, which has not had shorter ski seasons. 

“But I’d say the thing we’re noticing maybe more than anything else is the intensity of different weather events, whether it’s more wind in the winter or it’s heavier rain in different parts of the year.”

Smith added that while the resort hasn’t had to make more snow, Sugarbush has invested in more efficient snowmaking equipment to take advantage of shorter windows of ideal snowmaking conditions.

“I think over time, we’re going to have to spend a lot more capital in increasing our snowmaking capacity to recover from a weather event or to start the season earlier,” he added. 

Sugarbush, along with Killington Resort and 24 other ski resorts, has joined Protect Our Winters, a nonprofit founded by a professional snowboarder to mobilize the outdoor industry to push for climate change action.  

“Many businesses, especially in this industry, are not only trying to do things on their own to be as responsible as they can be but I think they’re really trying to be more forceful advocates to make sure that everybody understands the seriousness of this,” said Smith. “Also, we believe that it can be reversed, it can be slowed down if we just have the right actions.” 

Back at Morse Farm’s old ski trails, Burr Morse paused by two piles of recently cut ash logs. The Morses decided to cut some of the largest ash trees on the property before they fell prey to emerald ash borer, a green beetle native to northeastern Asia [first found in Vermont last year]. 

The beetle is expected to wipe out significant numbers of Vermont’s more than 150 million ash trees. Scientists anticipate that warming winters and other factors will cause EAB to spread further north than previously expected.   

Closing the ski trails has allowed the Morses to have a logger in for the first time in 20 years. 

“It’s not that we annihilated every ash we have,” said Morse. “The logger cut all the ones that were marketable…might as well sell them now rather than have them rot into the ground five years from now.” 

A trail map for the now-defunct Morse Farm Ski Touring Center is surrounded by overgrown goldenrod near the Morse Farm Sugarworks in Montpelier on September 10. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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Elizabeth Gribkoff

About Elizabeth

Elizabeth Gribkoff is VTDigger's energy and environment reporter. She graduated from UVM's Environmental Studies program in 2013, receiving departmental honors for her thesis on women's farming networks in Chile and Vermont. Since graduating, Elizabeth has worked in conservation and sustainable agriculture. Most recently, she was a newsroom and reporting intern with VTDigger.

Email: [email protected]

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