Recently released research depicts dramatic local effects from climate change and concludes that the Berkshires will be a very different place in a matter of decades.

• Some species of insects, birds and vegetation will be gone; some opportunistic or invasive species such as ticks, kudzu or poison ivy will become more prevalent.

• There will be more rainfall, less snow, and more weather-related damage.

• Local, state and federal governments will be further financially burdened by the need for ongoing repair of damages incurred by the increase in severe weather and localized flooding.

• The economy will have to change to adapt to fewer jobs and revenues generated by the ski industry, other winter recreational activities and maple syrup production.

• By the year 2100, if the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere isn't vastly curtailed, local weather will have taken on annual climate characteristics typical to South Carolina.

Now that scientists have been able to further collate and analyze vast amounts of climate data collected around the world since the mid-1900s, they have been able to extrapolate how the change in climate is likely to affect regional areas.

"Simply put, the impact of climate change is a significant and imminent threat," said Cameron Wake, an associate professor with the Institute of Earth, Oceans and Space at the University of New Hampshire and a lead author of the Northeast Climate Impacts Assessment recently issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists.


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Disaster declarations

In Berkshire County, that means "earlier springs, longer falls, and longer, hotter, wetter summers," according to Henry Art, professor of biology and environmental studies at Williams College.

"We'll be getting much more intense rainfall," said David Dethier, professor of geology and mineralogy at Williams College.

A report issued earlier this month by the Environment Massachusetts Research and Policy Center concludes that climate change has resulted in federal disaster declarations in every county in the state since 2007, and that it will lead to even more extreme weather events.

"The effects of increased severe weather events as a function of climate change are extremely complex," said Chuck Fidler, professor of science and science education at Wheelock College in Boston. "It is not simply enough to think about frequencies or intensities of storms or disasters, but how these events affect everything from food production, disease, public utility access, school bus service and our communities at large."

For example, with the winter season shrinking from both sides during the coming decades, local ski areas will find business "challenging," as Dethier put it.

"Over time, it will become more and more difficult for the ski areas in early and late winter," Dethier said. "If the average temperature from late December to mid-February -- about 25 degrees -- gets about three degrees warmer, you have serious trouble perhaps by 2100 or sooner."

Other forms of winter recreation, such as ice fishing, will also decline.

"And the decline in the snowmobile industry will be much more rapid and dramatic," said Wake, the UNH scientist.

Warmer, wetter

A road crew assesses damage to a washed-out road in Sherwood Forest in Becket during heavy flooding in 2011. The Berkshires economy may be hit hard by
A road crew assesses damage to a washed-out road in Sherwood Forest in Becket during heavy flooding in 2011. The Berkshires economy may be hit hard by climate change. (Eagle file photo)

Like several generations of scientists around the world, Dethier has been collecting local climate data since the early 1980s.

"It's all about probabilities," Dethier said. "In 1982, average annual rainfall here [in the Berkshires] was 42 inches. It's more like 48 inches now. And there has been a steady march of warmer temperatures: 2012 was the third warmest we've ever seen here and the hottest in the U.S. Summers for most of the last 20 years have been warmer than ever."

Dethier said that while landlocked Berkshire County will be buffered from rising seas and increasing coastal flooding, he foresees increasing frequency and severity of storms, including hurricanes, will lead to more flooding and more intense flooding.

Flood plains will increase as will flood damage, Dethier added.

The increase in temperature and rainfall will disturb habitats, according to Art, forcing the loss of some species and allowing some opportunistic invasive species to thrive.

One clear example of species change is deer ticks.

"Prior to 2000, we hardly ever encountered deer ticks" in the Berkshires region, Art said. "But now they're much more abundant and we've seen them moving up the slopes."

Cameron Wake added another example: poison ivy.

"Poison ivy grows better and faster when its wetter," Wake said. "And especially with more carbon dioxide, the poison in poison ivy gets much stronger."

Kudzu, an invasive Asian vine, tends to cover other vegetation which then dies in its shade. The warming climate regionally likely will play in favor of kudzu.

"It's only limited by cold winters, so we expect it to be everywhere in the Northeast," Wake said.

Art said that some species of trees will be vulnerable to a warmer, wetter climate. Other species of plants, trees and birds -- especially those living in higher elevations -- also may start disappearing.

Other species of flora are vulnerable to changes in climate, according to Art. They include ones that already are threatened or endangered in Massachusetts: Bartram's shadbush, hairy wood-mint, smooth rock-cress, black-fruited woodrush, Braun's holly-fern, large-leaved goldenrod, northern mountain-ash, and mountain cranberry.

Fir trees are also vulnerable to warming temperatures.

"Balsam fir is the most sensitive -- they're probably going to get pushed off the tops of the mountains," Art said. "The next one would be the red spruce."

Already, the red spruce is suffering, sugar maples are starting to suffer, and yellow spruce aren't reproducing.

"It doesn't look good at this point," Art said.

As those species decline, others will thrive, such as the oak and the black birch.

"In 50 years, I wouldn't be surprised if we have an explosion of black birch," Art said.

Forest changes noted

Art has access to biological data collected in Hopkins Forest since 1935.

"Beech trees have gone from a modest species to one that has the highest density in 75 years, so we've seen the changes in the forest already."

Another change he noted is in the population decline of wildflowers.

"Wildflower density has been tanking," he noted.

Species of insect and bird that could get pushed out locally include the early hairstreak butterfly and the blackpoll warbler.

"Northern mountain ash and large-leaved goldenrod would be regionally endangered to become extinct," Art said. "Blackpoll warblers and mourning warblers would probably vacate and move north, but the local long-tailed shrews can't fly north and would probably become extinct locally."

While the temperature change may be hard for people to notice because of the relatively gradual rate of change from one year to the next, since 1895, the annual average global temperature has risen 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, but more than 80 percent of that rise happened since 1980.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has concluded that if the average annual global temperature rises more than two degrees, living conditions and habitats will see drastic alterations. But according to a report issued by the National Climate Assessment Development Advisory Committee, if carbon emissions continue to rise at the current rate, the average annual temperature will have risen more than 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century.

"The rate of [temperature] change has never been this fast, and the rate of change in levels of carbon dioxide [in the atmosphere] is tracking exactly with the change in temperature," Art said.

Meanwhile, the chances for further record-breaking high temperature extremes will continue to increase, locally resulting in short-term droughts even though there will be more extreme precipitation.

Wake said the higher temperatures in New England will cause more rapid evaporation, leading to dryer ground and slower rivers and streams.

"By the end of the century, we can expect droughts every summer," he said.

Wake noted that heat waves, like the recent incidents in Europe that have killed thousands, will be more frequent in the Northeast.

"The summers will be hotter. And the winters will start later and end earlier," Wake said. "So we're going to have to adapt to the new environment, and you're already seeing master plans including preparations for the effects of climate change, like higher sea walls and bigger drainage culverts, for example. And we'll be spending more of our money to repair more damage caused by more flooding."

The extent and duration of these changes depends on the amount of carbon dioxide humanity does or doesn't pump into the atmosphere during the coming years, Wake noted.

"The warming we've seen since 1970 cannot be explained by any natural process in the Earth's system," Wake said. "So the future climate is in our hands."

To reach Scott Stafford:
sstafford@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6241.
On Twitter: @BE_SStafford