Climate change comes to our doorstep

Oct 08, 2020

To see the future as brought to us by climate change, Mainers last month just had to look out the window.

Look up, and we could see hazy skies created by the smoke from the cataclysmic wildfires on the West Coast and brought here by the atmospheric jet stream. Look down, and the brown grass showed the effect of the unusually dry and hot summer that has brought on the most prolonged and severe drought in two decades.

And just for good measure, the Gulf of Maine recorded its hottest single day on record — an increase not perceptible to the touch but trouble nonetheless for marine life.

The warming Gulf of Maine and the ongoing drought won’t bring the same horrors as the wildfires, which have killed, terrified and displaced residents across thousands of miles, and destroyed whole communities.

But climate change is still altering the landscape here, and unless more is done to stop it and mitigate its impact, climate change will continue to introduce new challenges to our way of life in Maine, while wreaking absolute havoc in other parts of the world.

Weather patterns climb and fall, but climate change is clearly contributing to the drought. The temperatures in Portland were 3 degrees higher than average, making it the hottest summer on record — the three hottest summers have now all occurred since 2016, and the hottest four since 2010.

The last time a summer made the top 10 coolest list was 1986.

While the high temperatures have been evaporating water from rivers and lakes, there has been little rain to replace it. It was the fourth driest summer in Portland since 1871, with just 8.17 inches of rain May 16-Sept. 24, when there is usually more than 15 inches.

Most of Maine is in “severe” drought, with parts of York and Cumberland counties and part of the far northeastern Maine in “extreme” drought.

Water levels are below normal at 90% of the sites used to measure streamflow. The Piscataquis, Kennebec, Penobscot and Aroostook rivers are all at their lowest in at least many decades.

The drought has threatened the individual size and yield of fall crops, including blueberries, potatoes and apples. It has added costs for some farmers in the form of increased irrigation, and made irrigation more difficult. It has disrupted the hay supply, complicating matters for farmers with livestock.

One bad crop can happen anytime, and it can be overcome, though for many farmers it will take emergency relief from the federal government. Bad fire seasons can happen, and most communities can bounce back, even if it will take years and billions of dollars.

But the toll of regular extreme weather will bring a reckoning. As higher base temperatures give us longer and stronger heat waves, we are already seeing how climate change will change and disrupt our world. As we said earlier this year, alarm bells are already sounding as record high temperatures increase the intensity of storms, cause droughts, and force species — including our own — to move.

Poor leadership on climate change has wasted a lot of precious time. When we need to be reducing carbon emissions, President Trump has instead rolled back numerous environmental protections. Recently he said, against all scientific fact and consensus, that the climate would “start getting cooler” again.

We cannot waste anymore time on denial. In Maine last month, it was hard to ignore the effects of climate change on the world around us. It’s only going to get harder.

Reprinted with permission from The Portland Press Herald.

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