Poll finds most Vermonters expect major impacts from climate change in the next 30 years
It's a warm February day at Northeast Slopes in East Corinth. Through the mist, the hillside is completely covered in snow, the texture of mashed potatoes. You’d think it was time for spring skiing.
Wade Pierson is the volunteer general manager here. His dad ran the place before him, and one of his sons volunteers now too.
“I want to come full circle and be able to keep this place going for the next generation,” Pierson said.
Skiers have been grabbing the rope tow at Northeast Slopes to catch a ride to the top since 1936. It’s still powered by an old Ford F-500 farm truck.
This is the oldest continually operating rope tow in the country and — so the local volunteers who run it claim — the fastest.
But more importantly, Wade says: At Northeast Slopes, a lift ticket costs $15. And if a kid at the nearby school can’t pay, he says, they just look the other way.
But in recent years, some things have changed.
“Where we used to ski during Christmas vacation — sometimes before, sometimes just after Christmas — we rarely see that anymore,” Pierson said.
And when the storms do come? He says, sometimes, they’re wet and heavy, or icy — like this last 14-incher, when the rope tow got jammed up.
A recent VPR-Vermont PBS poll found 58% of Vermonters think climate change will have a major impact on life here in the next 30 years. In fact, only 16% said they don’t expect to see much of an impact at all. Wade Pierson? He’s in the former camp.
And the science says: he’s right.
Recent climate modeling predicts broadly, skiing should still be viable in Vermont through 2050. But for low-elevation ski hills, like Northeast Slopes and Cochran’s, or the Brattleboro and Lyndon Outing Clubs, it’s going to be hairy.
Similarly, Vermont’s timber industry is seeing its season shrink by two days each decade, as forest floors get muddy earlier, making it hard for loggers to operate their equipment. For farms, temperate winters mean new pests can survive here.
These are just a few of the impacts that have bubbled up in recent decades.
Dr. Gillian Galford is an environmental scientist at the University of Vermont, and the lead author of the latest Vermont Climate Assessment. It takes a really granular look at the ways in which climate is changing right here.
“When we think about future climate, oftentimes, scientific models are projecting out to 2100, or even beyond,” she said. “So when we want to think about the next 10 years, 20 years, 30 years — some of the best indicators we have are what’s been happening in the recent past.”
Recent decades — and the longer record — have made it clear: Vermont is warming faster than the global average. Winters here are getting warmer, faster, than any other season.
Vermont now sees, on average, 16 fewer days below freezing each year as it did in the early 1990s.
"... When we want to think about the next 10 years, 20 years, 30 years – some of the best indicators we have are what’s been happening in the recent past.”
By 2050, Dr. Galford says, “In the best-case scenario, we may experience an additional 2 degrees Fahrenheit of warming. In the worst-case scenario, it will be closer to 8 degrees.”
And, she adds: “Unfortunately, our current global trajectory is closer to the worst-case scenario.”
That's from the latest Vermont Climate Assessment.
Even more recently released modeling by NOAA is even starker: it finds under a high emissions scenario, Vermont could be 4- to 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th century average by 2050,
In the best case scenario, NOAA's report finds the state could be roughly 2.5- to 8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th century average by 2050.
Where other parts of the United States are getting drier, Vermont is seeing more extreme precipitation events, interspersed with dry spells.
And, if you’re wondering about this very cold January, or the drought we saw last summer, climate is the average weather a place sees over a 30-year timeframe, or longer.
On average, in the early 1900s, Vermont got about as much precipitation in a year as Chicago. But now, Vermont sees about 10 inches more than that, closer to what Jacksonville, Florida gets.
We also know that by 2050, Vermont will see on average twice as many days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit every year as we do now, even if the world cuts global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a lot in a state where most people don’t have air conditioning.
Dr. Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux is the state climatologist. She says one thing Vermont can do is plan for the changes that science tells us are coming — so Vermonters can adapt to them.
And one key step is to determine who is being affected first.
“The places, the peoples that have already experienced stress, that have already experienced loss, that we know are vulnerable, either from a linguistic perspective, from an access perspective, from a not being able to be at the table perspective — we know that we need to make sure we are as inclusive as possible, so that we’re having all voices and all concerns being addressed,” Dupigny-Giroux said.
A recent study from UVM used modeling to find that low-income households in Vermont are poised to be most impacted by flooding under all climate change scenarios.
Mobile homes make up 7% of houses in Vermont. But in Tropical Storm Irene, they were 40% of the properties that saw damage.
Many people in Vermont are already feeling the impacts of climate change, and disproportionately, those people are low-income, Indigenous or people of color.
Young climate activists would like to see that change in the next 30 years.
Iris Hsiang is the youth representative to Vermont’s Climate Council. In 30 years, she’ll be 48.
“It’s sort of about protecting our communities in the end,” Hsiang said. “So, if we are protecting only some parts of our communities — only the rich parts, only the white parts — then that’s not worth it, because that’s not justice. And that’s not what, at least, I’m striving for.”
Back at Northeast Slopes, Wade Pierson says if they ever had to move to snowmaking, that would probably be the end.
“Right now, we’re crossing our fingers,” he said. “We sit back and watch the horizon, and take it as it comes.”
He doesn’t have the year over year data, but Pierson said in the 50 years he’s been here, the season usually goes about 44 days. Sometimes, lately, it’s been as short as six.
And when that happens, he and other adults worry about what local kids are doing when they’re not at the hill. For a lot of Orange County families, a lift ticket at Stowe or Sugarbush is simply out of reach.
The next 30 years aren’t just about the impacts. Scientists say: they’re also the best shot we have to make things a whole lot better 50 years from now, or 100.
If we cut emissions now, and hold Vermont closer to that best case scenario, of 2.5-8 degrees Fahrenheit of warming in the coming decades, skiing will still be viable here through 2080.
And if not, Wade says, “To see these places close down would be a shame to the communities that are served by these little ski hills.”
From Jan. 3 to Jan. 9, the VPR-Vermont PBS 2022 Poll asked hundreds of Vermonters about their opinions on climate change, broadband, dairy and more. Explore part two of results here. The first part of the results were released in January.
Climate models generally predict a range of outcomes, depending on the scale of global greenhouse gas emissions, rather than one number for predicted warming.
Under a high emissions scenario, NOAA's report finds Vermont could see anywhere from 4-10 degrees Fahrenheit of warming.
Under a low emissions scenario, the state could see roughly 2.5-8 degrees Fahrenheit of warming.