We've reported in half of Maine's counties for 'Climate Driven' — here's some of what we've learned
For more than a year, Maine Public's news staff has been taking a deep dive into the all-encompassing subject of climate change — examining its effects, its challenges and what future adaptation might look like in Maine, one county at a time.
This approach has allowed us to cover subjects that we might otherwise have missed. (Among them: Migrating salt marshes, Artic char, EV range anxiety, carbon capture and storage in the Maine Woods, climate resilient potatoes and blueberries and seed saving) It has raised our collective understanding of the threat of sea level rise, the need for coastal resilience planning and so much more.
There's still a lot to uncover. But by the time our project concludes in April, every member of our news staff will have contributed to the effort. We're planning a public event to share our findings and hear your ideas about how the climate beat should continue.
Until then, here are some takeaways in a few key areas.
As policymakers, businesses and individual Mainers work to combat climate change, they're increasingly focused on “beneficial electrification.” This is the idea that using renewable sources of energy to replace fossil fuels will not only reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that drive global warming, it will also lower energy costs.
Some people call the movement "electrify everything." (That's also the name of the progressive South Portland effort to combat climate change.) The goal is to produce power through renewable sources, like wind and solar, and use that to fuel pretty much everything. That means electric heat pumps heating and cooling our homes; electric cars, bikes, and even boats for transportation; and electric lawnmowers and even chainsaws for yardwork.
The reporting in our Climate Driven series shows the variety of electrification projects and strategies that Mainers are implementing, from Portland to Eastport to Mars Hill.
Because transportation is Maine's largest source of greenhouse gasses, reducing emissions from vehicles is critical. Patty Wight took an extended reporting trip in Maine Public’s electric vehicle, dubbed Pearl, to learn what it’s like driving an EV in rural Maine in winter, when the batteries don’t hold a charge as well. Her takeaway: With a bit of planning, extended road trips are fine, and some Mainers have been doing this for years.
We also reported on the fast-growing popularity of electric bikes, and the Mainers who are using them not just for recreation, but also for commuting. Slower to gain traction are the electric outboard engines propelling boats in Maine harbors.
Electrification will continue to be a major theme in our Climate Driven series in 2023, with stories on deck about proposals for offshore wind turbines, and the growth of solar power.
— Murray Carpenter
Forestry and agriculture
"The woods are lovely, dark and deep," in Robert Frost's famous poem. They also hold promise for climate mitigation. But when Frost wrote "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" back in 1922, the threat of climate change was still far off.
Here in Maine, the air temperature has increased by 3.2 degrees over the past 100 years. Winter is warming up. Snow has decreased by 7% and will decrease by another 20-40% by 2050, says Ivan Fernandez, a professor of soil science at the University of Maine.
So, what about the legendary Maine North Woods? How can they help keep the worst effects of climate change at bay? And what have we learned through our reporting for Climate Driven?
According to the University of Maine's 2020 update on climate change, the spruce and fir trees that made Maine famous will decline as a result of warmer seasons. Forests will see a shift in species. Picture fewer sugar maple, red maple and birch and more American beech.
That means the maple syrup industry will lose some of its reach. As Steve Mistler reported back in April, "if scientists' predictions are correct, the northernmost reaches of Somerset County could become one of the last strongholds of syrup production in the region."
Climate change will also exacerbate existing threats to forests, such as fire, pests and invasive species. Two years ago, Maine recorded 1,100 wildfires, the highest number in almost four decades. Most were small, at under half an acre in size. But that doesn't mean they couldn't grow larger, especially with drier conditions, including drought, becoming part of a pattern. And fire departments in rural parts of the state are losing people or closing down.
To keep areas susceptible to burning from blowing up, prescribed fires are increasingly being used as a preventive measure.
For all the changes underway in the Maine Woods, there is also possibility. And one place where that's been well documented for the past three decades is in a mature forest about 30 miles north of Bangor. The Howland Research Forest has one of the longest continuous records of atmospheric carbon and of the role forests play in the fight against climate change. Researchers are especially interested in the exchange of carbon between the atmosphere and the forest — trees offer the best carbon capture technology in the world.
Increasing carbon sequestration and promoting other natural climate solutions are among two of the strategies adopted by the Maine Climate Council in the governor's 2020 Climate Action Plan titled "Maine Won't Wait." It calls for increasing the total acreage of conserved land in the state to 30% through "voluntary, focused purchases of land and working forest or farm conservation easements."
To get to that target in the next eight years, Maine will need to protect nearly 2 million more acres. That's an area more than twice the size of Rhode Island. It's a big number, and conservation groups will need funding and they'll need to be strategic.
The North Woods already remove an estimated 60% of the state's annual carbon emissions through photosynthesis. Research from the New England Forestry Foundation suggests there is the potential to sequester more with improved forest management, conservation and expanded markets for long-lived wood products that also store carbon.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that reducing carbon emissions through renewable energy won't be enough to head off the worst effects of climate change. Carbon removal will also be needed. It has suggested setting aside as much as 50% of lands, waters and oceans to have a functioning climate system.
To be continued — when it comes to climate solutions, we have "miles to go before we sleep."
— Susan Sharon
Coastal planning and resilience
Maine boasts more than 3,000 miles of coastline. Our geography has long underpinned our tourism and fishing industries. But as Maine Public has shown during the first half of our county-by-county Climate Driven series, it will be a growing hazard as human activity causes the planet to warm — and as a result, sea levels to rise.
The phenomenon is already accelerating along Maine’s coast, causing an array of challenges for communities there. In York County alone, thousands of properties are at risk of flooding if sea levels rise 1.6 feet over the next 30 years.
In southern Maine, some forward-looking — and wealthy — communities have already been crafting concrete plans for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and responding to the threats of climate change. So has the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, which despite the fact that it services the nation’s submarines, won’t be immune to rising tides.
But making proactive climate preparations could be a harder sell on the other end of Maine’s coast, where resources are limited and skepticism is rife. In Machias, some residents oppose a plan to replace the downtown dike with a bridge that can better withstand storms while allowing fish to swim upstream. Still, state officials are trying to extend more climate assistance to underserved parts of the state.
For the second half of Climate Driven, our reporters will visit the middle section of Maine’s coast to learn more about how communities are being affected by rising seas. And we’ll make one last foray to the interior — through Kennebec and Androscoggin — before finishing the series in Cumberland County.
— Charlie Eichacker