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'Entire System... Changing': What The Climate Emergency — And Solutions — Look Like In Vermont

Lake water.
Taylor Dobbs
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VPR file
Vermont State Climatologist Dr. Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux says the state is already seeing the impacts of climate change, from less ice out on Lake Champlain in winter to lilacs blooming earlier in spring.

Given the massive existential threat climate change poses, it can sometimes be hard to wrap our brains around how it might affect our daily lives in Vermont. So we asked you to pose your questions to Dr. Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux, a professor at the University of Vermont and Vermont’s state climatologist.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Dr. Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: Well, I want to do just a little bit of climate 101 to start. What can we say about how climate change is impacting Vermonters right now, and how is it forecasted to impact us here in Vermont in the future?

We've been seeing some of the impacts already — whether it's different species arriving earlier or lake levels changing in response to whether we have extreme precipitation or droughts. We see lilacs blooming earlier. We see less ice out on lakes like Lake Champlain or even smaller ones like Joe’s Pond, for example. So, we're seeing the actual impacts.

And when we think about it, it's part of the larger system — part of a more regional system, and then more global system — in looking at how temperatures are continuing to rise, precipitation patterns are continuing to change. Storm tracks are shifting further north and south. Humidities are also changing. We saw that really pronounced these last few months or so, and it got so dry that the entire landscape dried out, and we had a wildfire threat.

So, it's really the entire system that's changing.

More from Brave Little State: How Is Climate Change Affecting Vermont Right Now?

I want to talk a little bit more about the dry weather we've been experiencing. We asked our listeners what questions they had about climate change, and one of them was from a listener named Sandra. And she said:

“My concern is that I have noticed that in all the years I've been in Vermont, I experience less and less rainfall, and rivers have been lower than what they used to be 18 years ago. I'm afraid we'll end up like California in a few years.”

We are currently seeing drought conditions in Vermont. And so, what exactly is the connection there between drought and dry weather and climate change?

One of the things that we need to always remember is drought occurs in every climate. Whether you are a dry climate like Australia, whether you are a wet climate like Vermont or Virginia, drought occurs everywhere. Now, it just looks a little bit different, depending on what the actual region looks like.

So, for Vermont, when we talk about drought, we talk about not just less rainfall falling, not just the surface drying up, not just our lakes and streams drying down, but also our aquifers being depleted as well.

So, when we think about drought in Vermont, it could either be on a sort of more immediate time scale, which is the rainfall and the lack of snow in the wintertime. Or it could be a multi-month, multi-year type of situation, and that's when you start seeing the hydrology, the ponds, the rivers and lakes starting to start to draw down.

So what Sandra is experiencing is — depletion in wells for example — [is] because the drought has gone on for such a long period of time. And so, droughts have occurred in the past, but in the last 20 years, we've seen at least 10 incidences of drought here as well.

And so, is that becoming more common as the climate changes here in Vermont?

So, I don't know if I would say more common, Henry. I think I would say it's the impacts that we are experiencing more.

Because if it goes on for more than a couple of weeks — which we call a flash drought — if it goes on for months, then we start seeing the impacts in our day-to-day lives. And if it occurs in the wintertime, then we start seeing snow drought. If it occurs in the fall, that's when our municipal water supplies are going to be affected.

"We've been seeing some of the impacts already — whether it's different species arriving earlier or lake levels changing in response to whether we have extreme precipitation or droughts. We see lilacs blooming earlier. We see less ice out on lakes like Lake Champlain... Storm tracks are shifting further north and south. Humidities are also changing." — Vermont State Climatologist Dr. Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux

Well, speaking of snow, we heard another question from Evan, who put this question to our podcast, Brave Little State. Evan asked:

“Our economy is dependent on a cold climate, from sugaring to ski tourism, we rely on it. So how will climate change impact us regarding cold weather?”

Cold weather and snow sort of go together in the state, and part of our continued understanding of how snowfall is being affected by climate change is:  How much is falling? How much is falling as rain versus snow? Are we getting the snowpack that we would usually get? For example, are we getting more rain on snow events?

It's an area of ongoing research, because a few years ago, we thought that it was going to be more rain versus snow all the time as the climate continues to warm, and now I think we're seeing a little bit more nuanced understanding of how that is playing out.

When you say nuance, what do you mean by that?

So, nuance means that it's not a straight linear thing. So, it's not less snow equals more rain, right. So, nuance would mean that you can get snow and rain going on the same season. So, it's not just both of them, but it's also the amount that's falling. It's the quality of the snow: So, is it a wet snow versus a dry snow? When it melts, what's the water equivalent in the snow?

For example, the snow that we got this week and last week, it was like, "Oh, yeah, we need the precipitation," which is true, but when you look at how much actually was contained in that snow, it was like less than a half an inch in most places except for the higher extremes. It's not just snow, broadly speaking, but it's also how much water is in the snow.

So, the snow that fell, great, but it didn't make a dent in the drought. We still need at least three inches to come out of the current drought.

More from VPR: Shelter From The Climate Storm? Experts Say Vermont Needs To Prepare For 'Climigration'

Just staying with the drought for a minute, I've heard other predictions saying that the Northeast and Vermont are likely to get wetter as climate change continues. So, I mean, how does that jive with what we're seeing right now, drought conditions, as we've seen over almost a year?

So that's another great question, because it allows us to understand the multiple ways that climate change presents itself.

What you are describing is what we call a trend line. So that upward increase, that increase in precipitation. And around that trend line, you have fluctuations — so more extreme precipitation, less extreme precipitation. So, in other words, floods and droughts.

And that's one of the characteristics of Vermont that we do have a lot of those fluctuations back and forth. So, droughts are part of our climate story, and will continue to be part of our climate story.

Finally, some of our listeners wanted to know about solutions. Specifically, they were curious about solutions on the individual level. So, what are some of the big-ticket things that individual people can do to help slow the negative impacts of climate change?

So, I would say we should always think about it with [a] systems perspective — so both mitigation as well as adaptation.

There are some moving parts that we need to sort of keep in mind, whether they are human health pieces — and so Lyme disease, heat, air pollution or mental health.

Whether it's from more of a community perspective — so do we have the financial resources to make investments to meet some of the challenges that climate change is producing? What are our cultural sensitivities — are we making sure that all of our peoples receive all of the information about climate change in a way that would assist them to make their individual choices?

We need to also bring in how we use our working lands, our forested lands. Are our wetlands healthy? Do we have our healthy soils?

And so, some of those are on an individual basis, some of them are community basis, and some of them on a statewide basis.

All this week in celebration of Earth Day, VPR has had stories about living through the climate emergency. This is in collaboration with the New England News Collaborative and Covering Climate Now.

Correction 9:55 a.m. 4/26/2021: This post was corrected to note that Dr. Dupigny-Giroux is a professor at the University of Vermont. The post had incorrectly identified her as an adjunct professor.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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