We all know about sea level rise and widespread drought that will result from global warming. But before this cold, wet spring and the news of constant floods in the farm belt, we could be excused for wondering what those events have to do with Vermont. Aren’t we living in a “sweet spot” that will be OK in the globally heated future?
Sadly, the news is that the continuing wet weather is merely a preview of what we can expect locally. That revelation, and more, was the subject of a recent presentation by our local weather guru, Roger Hill. His presentation, “Climate Change Comes to Vermont” (you can find it here on Youtube), was sponsored by the Sustainable Montpelier Coalition and the Unitarian Church of Montpelier Climate Team. Speaking to a packed house at that church, Roger referenced a library of scientific studies and research on how we are all going to be affected by the changed climate right here at home.
The big takeaway of the evening came when Roger showed us a connecting of dots depicting the loss of arctic ice resulting from the rapid heating of the polar region. That melting is radically disrupting the actions of the stratospheric jet stream. Those disruptions create huge peaks and valleys of weather gradients that take increasingly wet air from the Pacific and the Caribbean and move it slowly across the continent. In the border between a cooler north and a heated south, that wet air creates intense rain events in the Midwest and right here in Vermont.
How wet is it? In a traditional May, our area gets a bit over 3 inches of rain. This May, Roger measured over 9 inches at his weather station. I have farmer friends who have yet to get crops like potatoes into their continually muddy fields. Hill noted that we could start seeing 100-year storms every 10 years now. Over the next 20 years, while we will still see mountain snows, and our hot seasons will be more like those in Kentucky than in Vermont. For weather aficionados, this chaotic system is also making reasonable long-term predictions virtually impossible. Hill told us that, in the not-distant future, he would not be surprised to see 6- to 10-foot snow events right here in the midst of the Green Mountains.
Just as we are recognizing the need for new behaviors to lower carbon pollution, we now have to deal with understanding those conservation efforts are not enough. Now we must understand the difference between climate mitigation and climate adaptation.
The introduction to the current edition of the MIT Technology Review “Welcome to Climate Change” puts the challenge starkly:
“Most writing about technology and climate change still concentrates on mitigation – ie. Reducing emission by means of clean energy sources, electric vehicles and so on … While we should never give up on mitigation, it’s time to start talking more about adaptation and suffering – about the technologies the human race will need in a catastrophically altered world, and about the economic, political and social realities of living in it.”
So we need to keep in mind, as Roger noted, that even if we stopped putting greenhouse gases in the air today, we still have 30 years of increased disruption from what’s already there. That means it’s time to prepare for the changes those emissions will bring. We can expect increased flooding in the towns and small cities sitting on floodplains, such as Montpelier and Barre, that are located in the river valleys. To adapt, we must prepare ourselves, and our environment, for what’s coming. Of course, anything done in this regard will also reduce our combined carbon footprints, but our focus must be on protecting our community’s future. For instance, we need to build “green infrastructure” to slow down the increased stormwater. That may require reshaping our landscape to hold more water. It will mean reclaiming the buffering services of the floodplains upstream. We may need to remove the asphalt hardtop to all the impermeable parking lots along our local rivers in order to keep stormwater they shed from making future floods worse.
Meanwhile, life in the rural backwoods becomes more challenging with road washouts and lost utilities. We will see climate refugees coming in from surrounding towns. Where will they be housed? And who will be responsible for addressing all these challenges? That question presents a political challenge at both the local and the state level. I have been counseled by my associates to tread lightly on describing possible disruptions. “Scared people freeze up and don’t act,” they say. On the contrary, I say, Vermonters are a tough lot. We can understand the need to act and respond if we feel we are making our own decisions with the best information possible. To quote our own Sen. Bernie Sanders: “If there ever was a time in the history of our country when despair is not an option, this is that time.”
To help nurture a discussion and answer the question all of us are asking, “But what can I do, personally?” the Sustainable Montpelier Coalition will be hosting community conversations on how to talk about and plan for the coming climate challenge in Vermont. They will be for those folks who are hoping for concrete actions. Check the sustainablemontpelier.org website for information. We can learn to work together, in community, and process what we learn with others. Together, we can all begin to address the climate-changed future that’s now roaring into Vermont.
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An excellent editorial Dan. You are right on. I was stuck at home for a month during this mud season because I would bottom out in my low profile Leaf if I ventured out. But it is not just climate change it is also the Sixth Great extinction which will also have catastrophic results. We shoul also be grieving which is a form of love and can also help move us into action.
Getting more rain?? Hmmmmmm, what should we do? How about building out local Small and Micro hydropower to harvest what we were sent? Let’s turn the lemons into lemonade. This could be both mitigation and adaptation. But, it will take those 30 years before the government removes the suffocating regulations………….
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