Energy & Environment

Moats: Drought, high temperatures symptoms of climate change in Vermont

A cornfield in Cornwall shows the effects of this year’s drought. Photo by David Moats

Editor’s note: David Moats, an author and journalist who lives in Salisbury, is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He is editorial page editor emeritus of the Rutland Herald, where he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials on Vermont’s civil union law.

A pickup truck was bumping along the edge of a farm field somewhere near the Bristol-New Haven town line, and I was coming up from behind on the road next to the field. As I passed, the cloud of dust kicked up by the truck was so dense I had zero visibility within what amounted to a mini-Dust Bowl.

A dust cloud on one Addison County farm is not the same as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when wind-blown soil from a wide region of Oklahoma and nearby states darkened the sky and drove climate refugees by the thousands on an exodus to California. But drought in Vermont this summer has been another reminder that climate-related problems are not likely to spare our region in the coming years. 

Later that same day, we went for a hike in the Vergennes municipal forest, a conserved woodland in the hills of Bristol, where trails loop through mixed hardwoods and softwoods, up rocky knolls and alongside small ponds. It’s a lovely spot, but it was apparent from the drooping leaves and the bleached-out plants that drought was affecting the forests as well as the farm fields.

Rainfall figures show that this September was one of the driest ever. Before rain came on the last two days of the month, the Burlington weather station reported that about a quarter-inch of rain had fallen during the entire month. Average rainfall for September is about 3 and a quarter inches. 

A parched September capped a growing season that has been challenging for Vermont’s farmers. Loren Wood and his four sons farm about 800 acres and milk about 900 cows in Shoreham and Orwell, and he said that both the hay and corn crops have been hurt by the drought. The first cut of hay in May was “decent,” he said, but the second cut in July was “nonexistent.” He was looking at his bunker silos and wondering how he would fill them. “It was absolutely horrible.”

The hurricane that brought rain to the state in August eventually produced a third cut of hay that more or less made up for the lack of a second cut, but total yield was far below normal.

Meanwhile, corn throughout Addison County has been stunted and shriveled. The rain in August helped, Wood said, but he expects that, when the corn is in, it will yield about two-thirds of a normal crop.

This year’s drought is only part of the story. Ali Kosiba, climate forester with the state Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, said the climate had created a “perfect storm” of extreme conditions this year. Not only was rainfall sparse, but temperatures hit record highs. Burlington had its all-time hottest July. Temperatures on Mount Mansfield were 9 degrees above average for June. Hot temperatures combined with low rainfall pushed the evaporation index to an extremely high level, she said. Spring was relatively wet, but the 12-month deficit in rainfall meant some regions were 7 or 8 inches below the average.

Kosiba said she and her colleagues took a soil core sample at the Groton State Forest in a spruce-tamarack swamp. Swamp implies moisture, but she said the core sample was dust.

Forests are experiencing the combined stress of heat, which increases evaporation, plus lack of rainfall, causing plants on the forest floor to shrivel. She said that most trees, which have large reserves of water within their trunks and deep root systems, are doing OK, though trees suffering because of insects or disease will feel the stress more acutely in a drought year. 

Chris Olson, Addison County forester, noted that a 16-inch fully foliated oak tree ordinarily pumps about 300 gallons of water into the atmosphere each day. When water is lacking, fine root dieback may follow, and the tree may suffer.

One sign of stress has been the early arrival of foliage season. Changing day length is the primary trigger for the foliage to turn, but stress can cause the leaves to turn early. The bright reds popping out on the hillsides this fall are partly due to the stress of drought.

The farms and forests of Vermont will survive this year, mostly, but as Ali Kosiba said, multiple years in a row of drought conditions could spell trouble for the region. The cataclysmic wildfires darkening skies in the West this summer have underscored the reality of the new climate era. 

The caveat accompanying most stories about the weather is that no single weather event can be attributed specifically to climate change. On the other hand, when large patterns emerge, specific events gain new significance. Friends of mine in California tell me they have grown stir-crazy staying inside because of the choking smoke caused by distant wildfires. Thousands of people in California, Oregon and Washington have had to flee their homes, sometimes losing everything to the fires. Hurricanes in the Southeast now form with greater frequency and force, decimating coastal regions. Every year is hotter than the last. It’s all part of a pattern that gives to an ordinary and not-too-disastrous drought in Vermont a portentous meaning.

Bill McKibben, the author and activist who lives in Ripton, called attention in a recent article to a disturbing coincidence. On Nov. 4, the day after this year’s election, the United States is due finally and formally to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. President Trump announced his intention to withdraw early in his term, but the process will not be complete until that day. 

Meanwhile, massive ice shelves are peeling away from Antarctica and massive fires are destroying forests, not just in the American West, but in Brazil. The abrogation of the climate treaty will reach completion on Nov 4, but on Nov. 3 the American people have the opportunity to send the world a message that all is not lost. 

McKibben points out that the price of wind and solar power has fallen so quickly that it is now the cheapest power on Earth — cheaper to build than to operate existing fossil fuel plants. A program that recognizes the reality of climate change could reduce power sector carbon emissions by 80 percent and create 20 million new jobs by 2035, McKibben says. A decision to do so, or not, is on the ballot on Nov. 3.

Meanwhile, rainfall on the last day of September succeeded in washing the dust off the plants in Vermont’s parched forests, and it gave the Wood family of Shoreham a breather from their job of bringing in the crops. We can’t afford to take a breather in the campaign to slow the pace of climate change. We can’t afford to shrug off this year’s drought as just one dry year. The pattern of future weather events will be shaped by our actions today and on Nov. 3.

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David Moats

About David

David Moats, an author and journalist who lives in Salisbury, is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He is editorial page editor emeritus of the Rutland Herald, where he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials on Vermont’s civil union law.

Email: [email protected]

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