New Englanders are trained from a young age to expect the unexpected when it comes to weather, but according to a new UMass study, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
Flooding, extreme heat, and unusually warm winter weather — all effects of climate change — are anticipated to wallop New England 20 years earlier than most of the rest of the country, according to researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Northeast Climate Science Center. The study, titled “Consequences of Global Warming of 1.5 Degree Celsius and 2 Degrees Celsius for Regional Temperature and Precipitation Changes in the Contiguous United States,” puts climate change’s nasty arrival date at 2040 for the Pioneer Valley and the rest of New England.
Not that we aren’t seeing the emerging effects already, despite the year-to-year variations in climate, said postdoctoral researcher and co-author of the research Ambarish Karmalkar. We’ve got a trend toward warmer weather and, in the long run, the Northeast is certain to have more extreme weather and summer days with 90- or 100-degree weather being the norm, he said.
And, despite last year’s drought throughout Massachusetts, the region is expected to see an increase in rainfall. Even so, droughts will still remain a problem. They will still pop up periodically, and higher temperatures will exacerbate them when they do, he said.
“What we have experienced here is that there has been a dramatic increase in really heavy downpours in this region; in the Northeast in the past 60 years or so and that trend is likely to continue if the temperature goes up,” Karmalkar said.
As climate change continues to worsen over the coming years and decades it seems that we New Englanders are destined to be the canary in the coal mine. And farmers, activists, and city planners alike are making plans for the changes, though few know what to expect. Livelihood, health, and even life itself are all at risk, with possibilities of inconsistent growing seasons, unsteady local infrastructure, and deaths caused by more extreme weather — heatwaves, tornadoes, and hurricanes.
We’re not experiencing normal climate anymore, Toto
In Springfield and some surrounding communities many believe that climate change is already responsible for significant damage.
Nearly six years ago, on June 1, 2011, a severe tornado cut a path through Western Massachusetts destroying and heavily damaging homes, businesses, and schools. Winds blasted at 150 to 200 miles per hour through Springfield, West Springfield, Wilbraham, and Monson. Three people died that day. More than 300 people were injured in Springfield, and 500 people were left homeless in the city.
Following that event, Springfield became eligible for $17 million from the federal government to develop a climate change plan, according to Catherine Ratte, a principal environmental planner for the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.
Stephanie Belden of Springfield remembers the day of the tornado well. She was taking care of four children at her home daycare business on Old Farm Road when they heard the howling sounds of the wind. There was no basement to hide in, so they took shelter in a hallway, singing louder and louder to drown out the noise.
“The exact thought that went through my mind was ‘If anyone’s going to die please let it be me and let all my little guys get out of here okay,’” she said.
Everyone wound up being fine, but trees were cracked and uprooted in front of her house and she needed new siding. The roof remained intact, but the chimney was half missing. Storm doors were completely bent, windows were smashed, and vehicles were crushed by falling debris. All of the daycare equipment that was outside was destroyed.
Belden is one of many people who blames climate change for increasingly severe storms in the region.
“Climate change is definitely going on and completely switching our weather,” she said. “Do I believe that we could see another tornado? I definitely think that could be possible. Everything about weather is changing. Our winters are completely different than they were even just five years ago.”
Reminders of the event litter Springfield and the surrounding communities. The former Elias Brookings School building in Springfield is surrounded by metal fencing and stands solemn with boarded up windows and a rusting playground, closed since the tornado. It took nearly four years for a new $27.5 million school bearing the same name to open down the road.
On Tinkham Road in Wilbraham, trees were uprooted and a road once surrounded by dense foliage and trees is now mostly open space. Homes were wrecked and just a few years ago some sat abandoned. Now, new homes have been built and saplings dot a multitude of the suburban front lawns, but that scar from the tornado — the loss of heavily forested areas — will remain for decades.
On the march for climate reform
Perhaps the most persistent scar is on people’s minds, that responding to climate change is urgent. That urgency was present on April 29, when more than 1,000 people marched through the streets of downtown Springfield.
One person dressed as a polar bear, and others carried signs condemning the oil industry’s greed. All demanded action on climate change.
The Springfield Climate, Jobs, and Justice March was one event among dozens that day across the country that brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets in protest.
Marchers walked from the Federal Court on State Street to Springfield City Hall in a politically charged atmosphere with speakers that included local politicians, climate advocacy groups, religious officials, and artists.
Susan Theberge, a member of the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition, said part of creating a strong climate justice movement is standing together on the issue.
“This is truly a fight for our lives and the lives of our children, our grandchildren, and all the lives and breaths on this Earth,” she said.
But you can’t talk about climate justice without including racial justice — the two issues are closely related. It is often the most vulnerable and maligned populations who get hit hardest by climate change, said Bishop Talbert Swan, pastor of Spring of Hope Church of God in Springfield and president of the Springfield National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“The color of your skin should not determine how long you live,” he said. “It should not determine whether or not you have asthma or lead poisoning or any other diseases that are a result of the environment that we are destroying every single day.”
Swan also railed against the influence of political pundits pushing viewpoints instead of scientific facts.
“It’s a shame in America where young impressionable minds don’t listen to real science, but listen to talking heads that have a political agenda — those who are more interested in making sure that the fat cats in corporate America continue to make their profits than whether or not you live to see an old age or whether your children or your grandchildren grow up in a safe environment,” he said.
Swan has good cause to be concerned. Asthma and respiratory allergies, cancer, cardiovascular disease, food-borne illnesses, water borne diseases, and weather related deaths could all be exacerbated by climate change, according to a 2010 report by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences called, “A Human Health Perspective on Climate Change.”
Higher temperatures and increased rainfall could lead to water contamination with harmful pathogens and chemicals, resulting in more exposure of those substances to people, the report reads.
Ultraviolet radiation from the sun would increase in duration and intensity as an effect of climate change, which would present a greater risk for people getting cancer, the report says. Cardiovascular diseases would also be exacerbated due to increased heat stress from high temperatures and heat waves. Respiratory allergies and diseases could also increase because of increased exposure to pollen, mold, air pollution, and dust, all of which would increase due to various aspects of climate change.
In the [garden] trenches — the front lines of climate change
Up Interstate 91 in Hadley, Dan Pratt is an experienced organic farmer and manager of Astarte Farm. Walking past rows of sprouting garlic and recently picked asparagus, Pratt talked about his own view of climate change and how it is affecting agriculture.
“Just due to the highly variable nature of New England weather; it’s always been a little chaotic here and I think that any additional factors leading to more chaos is going to make it much more difficult to farm effectively — everyone from the maple syrup guys who started in January this year to the peach farmers who are counting their blessings because the peach blossoms aren’t going to get frozen off their trees this year,” he said.
Pratt established Astarte Farm in 1999 and the 6.6-acre farm became certified organic in 2003. The farm is known for its fruits and vegetables such as kale, asparagus, tomatoes, garlic, shallots, and blueberries. Owner Jim Mead purchased the farm in 2014 and Pratt became the farm’s manager.
One of the problems that farmers face with an early spring is that cover crops such as oats, cowpeas, and daikon radishes that are expected to be killed off from winter temperatures are still thriving by the time spring comes, Pratt said.
“There hasn’t been enough sustained low temperatures to kill the crop,” he said. “That can be a real pain. You expect something to be a dead mulch and you come out in the spring and it’s still bright green and full of roots.”
Astarte Farm is utilizing bio-char produced by Amherst-based company NextChar, to build soil resilience.
“It’s a very crystalline structure; it holds a lot of moisture,” said Pratt of the bio-char. “It’ll actually soak up excess nutrients out of your soil and release them when a plant root gets close to it …. We’re hoping that the biochar applications are going to build the resilience of our soil both in terms of excess water and the absence of water during a drought.”
Astarte Farm is not far from the Connecticut River and if a flood was severe enough all of the crops would be underwater, he said.
“Many farmers will tell you that the amount of labor involved — moving irrigation lines, creating irrigation systems — takes away from the normal day-to-day maintenance chores on a farm,” he said.
A local plan for a global problem
Back in Springfield, the city has partnered with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and nonprofit organization Partners for a Healthier Community to create an action and resilience plan based on input from city residents from a series of meetings that took place in April across the City of Homes.
Catherine Ratte, of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, told a group of more than 25 people at a city-wide meeting at Springfield Central Library, hours before the April 29 climate march, that the city’s goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.
“This plan is not only going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also is going to try to make the city stronger and be resilient for both the chronic stressors that the city also suffers from — poverty, unemployment, institutionalized racism,” Ratte said.
“Fifty-four percent of the problem is actually resident driven,” she said. “We understand that the city has to act because people want to ride their bikes and there’s no bike lanes.”
Ratte said part of the plan is to inform residents where greenhouse gas emissions are coming from — 30 percent of greenhouse gases come from transportation in the city and 99 percent of that percentage are from individual vehicles. Twenty-six percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from heating and cooling appliances in residential buildings.
Another aspect of the plan would be to quantify the actual greenhouse gas emissions by sector, including waste, industry, transportation, and energy and propose goals for reduction as benchmarks to an 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gases by 2050, according to the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. Unique risks that climate change poses to Springfield’s infrastructure and residents would also be further identified, quantified, and prioritized.
Ratte said a draft plan would be submitted to the city by the first week of June, after which city officials would review the plan, and then post it online and provide copies to residents for feedback. The finalized plan would then be sent to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development for approval.
One way to reduce greenhouse emission at home: Mass Save, a home energy audit company, offers a no-cost energy assessment for Springfield residents, Ratte said. It typically costs $2,000 to improve homes in a way that reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
“We’ve burned too many fossil fuels; we’ve already affected the climate,” she said. “In Springfield, we’re very familiar with that because we were here in 2011 when we had the year of disasters. We had the tornado; we had the snowstorm in October.”
Nice Effort … If This Were 1979
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is also readying for issues stemming from climate change.
Gov. Charlie Baker signed an executive order in September 2016 that established an integrated climate change strategy for the state and identified climate change as a serious threat to the environment, communities, and the economy. As part of the order, designated climate coordinators were established in each office.
The administration also awarded $1.8 million in grant funds to 19 communities in order to support coastal and ecosystem resilience efforts aimed at preparing for climate change impacts such as flooding, storm surges, erosion, and rising sea levels, he said.
Peter Lorenz, spokesman for the administration, said in December 2016 the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection proposed six regulations regarding climate change that would address the electric sector, transportation, gas leaks and sulfur hexaflouride, a potent greenhouse gas used in gas insulated switchgear.
However, seven leading environmental protection advocacy organizations remain unconvinced that the governor is doing enough. Baker’s administration was deemed mediocre — receiving a “C” for the second year in a row — for its environmental policies and leadership, according to a report card from seven leading environmental groups.
Karmalkar, author of the UMass study showing New England in climate change’s crosshairs, said more urgency is needed for the people of the region.
“When the global average temperature reaches [a] 2 degrees Celsius [increase] we are likely to experience 3 degrees Celsius of warming,” he said. “We here have slightly less time to act or we are likely to experience some of the impacts … way before some of the other regions.”
Chris Goudreau can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.