Maine Lakes Tell Tale of Climate Change

Apr 7, 2015

This month we're launching a new series titled "Beyond 350: Confronting Climate Change." Over the next year, we'll be looking at what individuals, businesses, communities and political leaders are doing to plan for its effects in Maine.

Spring officially arrived more than two weeks ago, but, as we all know, winter has been slow to release its icy grip. Many lakes and ponds are still frozen. And, in traditional Maine fashion, there are local contests to guess the day it all disappears.

Known as "ice out," these dates are considered a key indicator of climate change. On many lakes, they're two weeks earlier then they were 50 years ago, typically in late April or May.
 

About five years ago, before he was elected to the U.S. Senate, independent Angus King spied a small graph in a newspaper that got his attention. He made copies of it and still uses it as a talking point when he speaks to groups, like this one at the Naples Town Hall.

"The graph, to me, told me everything I needed to know about climate change," King told the group. "So, I had it put on a little card which I hand to my friends in Washington from time to time, the ones who say nothing is happening."

One side of the graph shows carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere over the last million years. The data are based on ice core samples provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. During the same time frame, they show natural variations in CO2 of between 180 and 300 parts per million. But then, in 1860, around the time of the industrial revolution, the line on the graph zooms upward. It's now just above the 400 mark.

One graph Sen. Angus King uses to explain his climate change concerns to constituents.
Credit Courtesy: Sen. Angus King's office

"To me, it's too much of a coincidence that this starts upward on that sharp incline when we started burning coal, and then later oil, in large quantities all over the world," he says. "I don't know about you but I haven't noticed a big outbreak of volcanoes in the last hundred years."
 

The flip side of Sen. Angus King's climate change graph, showing the relationship between CO2 in the atmosphere and temperature change.
Credit Courtesy: Sen. Angus King's office

On the other side of the card is a graph that shows the relationship between CO2 and temperature over the last million years. CO2 goes up, temperature goes up. CO2 goes down, temperature goes down. "So this to me says, a) something's happening, b) people have something to do with it," King says.

King, who now serves on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Climate Action Task Force, calls reducing the carbon footprint an "urgent priority."

It's urgent because climate experts say 350 parts per million is the level needed to sustain the planet. And getting to that number, essentially reversing the line on King's graph, is akin to putting the genie back in the bottle before irreversible tipping points are reached.

"It's a challenge that requires international cooperation, including from China and India," says Sen. Susan Collins.

Like King, Collins has also been speaking out about climate change. Though many of her fellow Republicans in Congress are more than a little skeptical about it, Collins has defended the Clean Air Act and blocked efforts to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

She has three pieces of advice for making progress on the issue. "The first is to be practical. The second is to enlist more Republicans in the crusade, if you will, and the third is to secure some small victories."

Speaking at a roundtable discussion in Portland last month, Collins said environmental groups and the business community will have to find common ground on energy efficiency, for example, before tackling the larger more complex policies to address climate change. Above all, she says, it's essential that the real effects of climate change be connected to what's going on to people's daily lives.

And that's where ice fishermen like Zach Wozich come in. Just three days before Easter, Wozich is ice fishing on Thompson Lake near his home in Casco.

"I wasn't sure what to expect about the ice, but it's pretty thick," I tell Wozich.

"There's, like, two feet of ice, still," he says. "The ice will still be out, probably, by the 20th."

"Of April?"

"Yeah."

Wozich is happy for a few more weeks to fish for lake trout. But he says he's noticed something troubling about Maine's winters in general: big variations in temperatures and snowfall.

"That's the thing that gets me - whether the winters are really warm or they're really cold, where you have extreme snow or no snow at all. I've been seeing this for the last 10 years at least. There's got to be a reason."

While the Northeast may have experienced a bitterly cold and snowy winter in 2015, the average temperature on the planet last year was the warmest in 135 years of record keeping. In Maine the state climatologist's research indicates that by 2050 the annual temperature in Maine will rise another 3 to 5 degrees.

"Who here enjoys ice fishing? Show of hands. Great. What about snowmobiling? Skiing?" At the Naples Town Hall, Laura Dorle of Environment Maine stands before a room full of conservationists, scientists, and outdoor enthusiasts who were recently invited to discuss climate change with Sen. Angus King. Speakers highlighted the potential uncertainty for winter recreation and Maine's economy.

"And so the more we can bring the message home, I think the more people we can connect with on this issue," says Environment Maine Director Taryn Hallweaver. Hallweaver grew up in the Rangeley Lakes region, where winter sports are so ingrained in the local culture that ice out dates going back to the 1800's were printed in the back of the phone book.

Now she wants to use that kind of data to inspire action. "Climate change is an issue of such magnitude that it requires action at the individual level, state level and federal level and any one or two of those are insufficient. We need all three."

At the federal level the current focus is on the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, which the Union of Concerned Scientists calls a "historic opportunity" to reduce carbon pollution from power plants and establish state-by-state carbon emissions targets.

King says he supports the plan as a first step, but he says the U.S. can't solve the climate change problem by itself."This is a worldwide problem and I can't sit down there in Washington and say, 'People in Maine should pay more for their gasoline,' if nothing's happening in China and India. This has to be a global effort."

That statement concerns environmentalist Doug Bowen, of Porter, who says both Sens. Collins and King shouldn't wait for other countries to act. "I think it's very dangerous to wait until somebody else does something that's going to so deeply affect us all."

Environmental groups are hoping that Maine's congressional delegation will support the Clean Power Plan.

As for ice fisherman Zach Wozich, he says he's looking for leadership on climate change and practical advice about what he can do. Just 2 or 3 degrees will make a big difference for cold water fish species and for lake ecology in general.

"For me, it's our duty to be realistic about the issues at hand with the climate and then just work to resolve them," Wozich says, "rather then making it a political debate."

While climate change might once have been off his radar,  loosely associated with images of stranded polar bears and melting ice caps, Wozich says there's now no denying what's happening in his own backyard.

Coming up in future installments of Beyond 350, we'll take a look at what cities and towns are doing to prepare for climate change, why culvert size matters, and how loggers are being trained to think like a bird.

Coverage of climate change on MPBN is made possible, in part, by a grant from the Doree Taylor Foundation.