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Earth & Marine Sciences - Extreme weather

Researchers look at the effects of a changing environment on Maine’s marine waterways, croplands and municipalities

by Beth Staples

dramatic sky
Elders sharing childhood stories about growing up in Maine often recount hiking miles uphill in 3 feet of snow to get to school — and home.

Turns out those tales, of Maine winters anyway, might not be all that exaggerated.

In the winter of 1904–05, horses pulled huge saws to cut channels in foot-thick ice on Penobscot Bay so maritime traders could deliver goods. And in the winter of 1918, people walked, skated and rode in horse-drawn sleighs across the frozen bay to Islesboro, according to the Belfast Historical Society and Museum.

That same winter, Albert Gray and his companions drove a vehicle across the frozen-solid brine. According to a Bangor Daily News report, the group made several trips in a Ford Model T between Belfast and Harborside, just south of Castine.

Historical records indicate upper Penobscot Bay froze once or twice a decade during the winter in the 1800s and early 1900s, says Sean Birkel, research assistant professor with the University of Maine Climate Change Institute (CCI).

February 1934 was the last time it occurred.

Climate is different today. For instance, summer — when the mean daily temperature is above freezing — is about 20 days longer now than it was on average in the late 1800s, says Birkel, and spring arrives nearly two weeks earlier than it did a couple of decades ago.

The lakes really do freeze later, and ice out is earlier than it used to be, he says. And computer models predict that in the next 40 years, the average temperature in Maine could rise 3–4 degrees Fahrenheit, with most of the warming occurring in winter.

Understanding Maine’s changing climate is critical for informed risk assessment and cost-effective adaptation.

Temperatures have been climbing for some time. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), May and June 2014 were the hottest May and June ever recorded. In addition, NOAA notes that people born in 1985 and later have not yet lived through a colder-than-average month.

The number of extreme weather events — like the record-breaking 6.44 inches of rain that flooded Portland, Maine, Aug. 13, 2014 — has spiked in the last 10 years. Birkel says a 50 percent to 100 percent increase in rainfall events with more than 2 inches per day has been recorded at weather stations across the state.



The increase in frequency and strength of extreme events, including heat and cold waves, is likely tied to the steep decline of Arctic sea ice since about 2000, Birkel says. Studies show rapid warming over the Arctic is changing circulation patterns across the Northern Hemisphere.

In particular, jet stream winds are slowing, which increases the likelihood of blocking events that hold a weather pattern — including heat and cold waves — in place for several days, he says. When blocked patterns finally dissipate, they tend to do so with powerful storm fronts.

cows in field

Photo by Holland Haverkamp

Climate change and extreme weather are taking a severe toll on people and the planet, according to scientists.

Worldwide since 1971, 2 million people have died and $24 trillion in property damage has resulted from weather and climate disasters, according to Climate Central, a nonprofit nonadvocacy organization of scientists and journalists.

In 2012, 11 weather and climate disasters worldwide killed more than 300 people and caused more than $110 billion in damage, according to NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center. The disasters included the largest drought since the 1930s — an event that worsened wildfires that burned more than 9 million acres.

And in October 2012, Hurricane Sandy pummeled the East Coast of the U.S. and the Caribbean. The storm is blamed for approximately 150 deaths and the destruction of about 650,000 homes, according to NOAA.

A host of UMaine marine scientists are participating in a multiagency research project to improve the accuracy of forecasts of extreme weather events — hurricanes, superstorms, blizzards and floods — that endanger people and animals, and destroy property.

UMaine received $1.5 million of NOAA’s $5.5 million award to increase the precision of predictions of extreme weather events and coastal flooding in the northeastern U.S.

This project will help develop rapid response capability and deploy ocean observing assets before extreme weather events, and use these targeted observations to constrain ocean models and issue timely forecasts for coastal cities and towns in the Northeast United States, says Fei Chai, professor and director of UMaine’s School of Marine Sciences, and one of four co-investigators.

The three other UMaine co-investigators from the School of Marine Sciences: Neal Pettigrew, Huijie Xue and Mary Jane Perry, who is interim director of the University of Maine Darling Marine Center.

The UMaine faculty and researchers are among the 39 scientists engaged in the two-year study. The group is building, deploying, garnering and analyzing data from state-of the-art outfitted floats, gliders and moorings during two winter storms and two summer storms that hit the Gulf of Maine or the area from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

When a severe storm approaches, aircraft will deploy 15 miniature, expendable floats along the forecasted storm track and launch four reusable gliders in the middle of the shallow continental shelf. Researchers will also anchor 10 portable buoy moorings near estuary mouths where storm surge causes significant flooding and damage.

Coastal communities need help to minimize potential hazards to fisheries, aquaculture, working waterfronts and tourism by implementing resilient development strategies and practices.

The floats, gliders and moorings are designed to collect three new levels of ocean observations. The new data will be integrated into computer models that predict currents, sea level and turbulent mixing of cold subsurface water with the surface ocean.

Meteorologists will thus have a more complete picture of sea surface temperature and upper-ocean heat content, which the scientists say should result in better-informed storm forecasting.

In addition, more targeted ocean surface data (air pressure, air and sea temperature, ocean waves, sea level, etc.) collected by the moorings, in conjunction with current coastal flooding models, should enhance forecasting of flooding.

Esperanza Stancioff, climate change educator with University of Maine Cooperative Extension and Maine Sea Grant, says coastal residents and communities need strategies to address sea-level rise and flooding that will result, in part, due to melting glaciers and polar ice caps.

UMaine Extension and Maine Sea Grant are among the groups working with coastal community leaders to help minimize potential hazards to fisheries, aquaculture, working waterfronts and tourism by implementing resilient development strategies and practices.

Other UMaine researchers with varied areas of expertise also are helping people prepare for the effects of climate change and extreme weather.

Ivan Fernandez, Distinguished Maine Professor in the School of Forest Resources and CCI, says understanding Maine’s changing climate is critical for informed risk assessment and cost-effective adaptation.

A warming Gulf of Maine increases the risk of lobster disease, as well as market uncertainty, Fernandez says. He points to summer 2012 when warming ocean water resulted in a glut of lobsters and a subsequent bust in prices. In agriculture, rising temperatures can result in an increase of insects and disease, he says, as well as crop damage and soil erosion due to intense precipitation events.

Opportunities also could result from the changing climate, says Fernandez, including longer growing seasons and emerging shipping lanes in the Arctic Sea due to the receding polar ice sheet.

In September, Damian Brady, assistant research professor at the Darling Marine Center in Walpole, began examining consequences that longer growing seasons, and the subsequent actions by farmers, have on downstream coastal water systems.

Farmers are planting crops earlier than they did a few decades ago. That results in earlier fertilizer application and planting some crops twice in a growing season, Brady says.

Brady is examining where the fertilizer goes and how changes in farming practices affect estuaries downstream that also are being impacted by other climate-related factors, including increased frequency of extreme storms and higher temperatures. His research will concentrate on understanding these dynamics in Chesapeake Bay; he says the findings are expected to apply to agricultural watersheds around the world.

Brady also anticipates learning how management policies with different rules and incentives affect farming behavior and, subsequently, impact watershed and estuary health.

He’s collaborating with researchers at Johns Hopkins University, Cornell University and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Birkel and other CCI researchers have developed online tools to assist local community planners prepare for climate changes. The tools — Climate Reanalyzer, 10Green and CLAS Layers — were explained at the Climate Change Adaptation and Sustainability (CLAS) Conference in October at UMaine.

The tools provide users access to station data, climate and weather models, and pollution and health indices.

Paul Mayewski, director of UMaine’s CCI, says the CLAS software explains past, present and future changes in climate at the community level and introduces a “planning system that invokes plausible scenarios at the community level where local knowledge can be applied to produce local solutions.”

For instance, city leaders considering opening a cooling center for residents can review projections for future frequency of heat waves. Medical care workers can assess the potential for increase in Lyme tick disease. And community planners preparing to replace stormwater drains can examine predicted precipitation in coming decades.

Hurricane Sandy storm damage

It’s important for businesses to prepare for such changes, says conference presenter John F. Mahon, the John M. Murphy Chair of International Business Policy and Strategy and professor of management at UMaine. “Business has to be engaged with government and other organizations at the local and national level,” says Mahon.

“One of the more useful tools for doing this is the use of plausible scenario planning (PSP). In PSP, we try to envision several plausible futures with equal likelihood of happening and develop a set of ‘warnings’ or ‘indicators’ that tell us which one of the several futures we have identified is unfolding so that we can adapt to it in the most efficient, economical and effective manner.”

When we have a crystal ball, even if the future is bad, we can create a better situation. We have no choice but to adapt. Who wouldn’t want a cleaner world, to spend less money on energy and have better jobs?”
Paul Mayewski

Mayewski says it’s imperative to provide tools that enable people to take action to mitigate climate change, as well as adapt to it.

The CLAS framework is being expanded to encompass national and international planning capability, says Mayewski, who was featured in Years of Living Dangerously, a nine-part Showtime documentary about climate change that won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series.

Maine is in a good position to take action, Mayewski says, especially with regard to developing offshore wind technology.

“When we have a crystal ball, even if the future is bad, we can create a better situation. We have no choice but to adapt,” he says. “Who wouldn’t want a cleaner world, to spend less money on energy and have better jobs? We will run out of oil at some point, but the wind won’t stop.”

On a global scale, climate change is a security issue, as it “impacts human and ecosystem health, the economy; intensifies geopolitical stress; and increases the likelihood of storms, floods, droughts, wildfires and other extreme events,” Mayewski says. It’s notable that previous civilizations have collapsed in the face of abrupt, extreme changes. And climate change, he says, is far from linear in the way it evolves.

“When you go all over the world, you get a global view,” Mayewski says. “By nature, I’m an optimist. That is tempered with this problem. I do believe there will be a groundswell of people, or governments, or some combination so that there will be a better future in store.”

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