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A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time.

For all its perils, climate change could make Maine's frigid interior more hospitable

A view of the landscape from Rockwood, Maine.
Esta Pratt-Kielley
Maine Public
A view of the landscape from Rockwood, Maine.

Over the last several years, much thought has been put into how Maine should respond to the challenges of climate change. But what about its potential benefits? Scientists say it's possible that by mid-century, parts of the state could see some good things come from climate change, such as milder, easier winters, lower mortality rates and an increasing population.

One national model has put Piscataquis County among the top five climate-advantaged areas in the nation.

This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."

Some scientists are predicting that over the coming decades life could get markedly easier in interior New England — including Maine's highlands — thanks to global warming. The analysis involves several factors, but the most important is warmer, shorter winters.

Because in interior Maine, cold is a killer.

"Any way that climate change reduces the number of cold days each year, it's going to lower your death rate," says James Rising, a member of the Climate Impact Team.

The Climate Impact Team is an international research consortium that tries to turn climate data into useful models of the future. Their work is fueling public conversations about potential climate "winners and losers".

"Climate change is going to make life a little bit better for the people of Maine. It's going to make disease and disability and death all less likely as a result of (generally warmer winter temperatures)," Rising says.

And even after factoring in deaths caused by hotter summer days and storm threats, he says every Maine county will likely see mortality rate reductions.

Under moderate climate-change scenarios for the mid-century, York County's annual mortality rate will fall by nine per 100,000. Farther from the coast the rate falls more, reaching a potential low of 20 fewer deaths per 100,000 in Piscataquis County. As a yard-stick, Maine's annual fatality rate due to car accidents is just under 12 per 100,000.

"In terms of public health, that's a huge victory, right? That makes a big difference," says Rising.

And combined with other factors, such as decreased energy costs and a longer growing season, the county's gross income could increase. All of which might make Maine's interior highlands a pretty attractive place for people forced to leave increasingly uninhabitable latitudes.

"Reality prevails. And I think the reality is we are going to have people migrating here," says Lesley Fernow, a geriatric internist in Dover-Foxcroft and one of a group of local citizens who've formed a municipal "Climate Action Advisory Committee" in response to the "Maine Won't Wait" climate council's call to action.

"We as a county need more people. We're losing population, we have an aging population. So there is theoretically a great benefit to having people migrate to our region. Are we prepared for that? I would have to say at the moment I don't think we are," says Fernow.

Some others in Maine have been thinking about such possibilities for a while now. Back in 2010, Bowdoin College economist David Vail wrote a piece in the Maine Policy Review asking whether drought and fires in the Southwest might draw climate migrants here.

"I was half serious. I was certainly thinking longer-term than the 12 years since the article came out," Vail says.

But as he writes in a new article, it's quickly become quite serious. Manifest climate-driven catastrophes — and the example of Maine's pandemic-driven newcomers — show that the state's rural "rim" counties have a new chance to reverse decades of losses.

"The rim counties had been hemorrhaging population and economic activity for decades. The question I ask is 'What can turn that around?' And I think climate can be an important part of it. Yes," Vail says.

It's not that Piscataquis County will be swept away by a tide of humanity — one demographer says that as climate refugees head up Interstate 95 they'll tend to turn right, towards the coast, seeking more infrastructure and amenities.

Vail sees opportunities to lure some of them inland, by investing in rural town centers, parking, housing, health care, and, perhaps above all, broadband. Combine those with a multi-faceted strategy for new forest-products industries, some marketing, and a recent influx of federal workforce and infrastructure funding — a rural renaissance is a real possibility.

Quoting a former student, he calls it a "silver-buckshot" approach.

"The 100 small ways that things like cross-laminated timber, or biochar, or wind power arrays, or high-end tourism resorts on Moosehead Lake, that combination of things together can be the silver buckshot, that when we add it together might be able to generate the critical mass that we need," he says.

The area's relatively positive climate outlook is attributable to its altitude and exposure to dry, cooling weather fronts from Canada. That's according to Ed Hummel, a meteorologist who lives in Garland.

But, he adds, "Even though it'll take longer for the extreme heat to get here, the changes that will be happening around us and also within the area are still going to affect us."

Intense rains, more frequent freeze-thaw cycles, a smaller snow pack and periodic droughts are already becoming more common, Hummel says.

"So fishing, farming, anything to do with the forest-timber industry, that's all going to be affected," he says.

And there will be more humid days that reach dangerously above 90 degrees — which is why the Dover-Foxcroft Climate Advisory Committee's first project is to establish a dedicated cooling center for the area.

Committee member Lesley Fernow believes that many other tasks will have to be carried out to build resilience, and to make sure resources are equitably allocated should the area become a climate refuge.

"And truthfully, that means in some ways that humanity has failed if we have people who are migrating to Piscataquis County from places that are unlivable because they're flooded, or they're excessively hot, or they can't grow food, that's going to be considered a failure," Fernow says.

Piscataquis County, she says, could be a sort of climate consolation prize — but that hardly makes it a climate "winner."

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.