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CLIMATE CHANGE IN THE BERKSHIRES

A warmer and wetter Berkshires climate means less snow, less skiing, bigger storms and more expensive road repairs

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Nearly four years after Tropical Storm Irene devastated the region in 2011 and closed Route 2 for several months, Black Brook Road in Savoy remained impassable. It took Savoy years to rebuild and reopen the road, which connects Route 2 with the center of the town of Savoy and Route 116. 

Though global climate change may often be described in apocalyptic terms, its specific impacts on everyday life vary by region.

New England is warming faster than most of the world, a trend that threatens to disrupt the region’s traditional four seasons, a December study found. By the time global temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (that's 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the Northeastern U.S. will have experienced 3 degrees Celsius of warming, University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers projected in 2017

Berkshire County will not see high tides sweep through houses, scenes that Massachusetts’ coastal communities have witnessed. Yet, a warmer and wetter climate will mean more severe storms, less snow and worse heat waves, local researchers say. Over time, changes may significantly alter the forest ecosystems that not only provide clean air and water but bring tourists drawn to Berkshire County’s scenery. 

Warmer winters will hurt the local skiing industry, which generates more than $50 million of yearly spending in the county, a Jiminy Peak executive estimated in 2019. While local resorts did not comment for this story, many have invested in mountain bike trails, zip lines and other activities in an effort to expand business beyond the winter season.

Visitors from Europe once crammed into the old Williams Inn on Main Street to see the Berkshires’ fall foliage, said Henry Art, a professor emeritus of biology and environmental studies at Williams College. A combination of “cold, crisp nights and bright sunny days” creates those famous fall colors, Art said, but warmer nights in fall 2021 left trees producing fewer red, purple and crimson pigments.

Foliage

Maple leaves on this tree in front of the First Congregational Church in downtown North Adams routinely start to change into their autumn colors earlier than most. A warming climate is expected to blunt the traditional drama of New England fall foliage. 

“If we get a string of falls like we did in 2021, I think you can kiss that element of tourism goodbye,” Art said. “We’re probably going to have a fall that will look a lot more like Europe compared to what we used to look like. It will be just like the ski industry that used to be in Connecticut and moved to Massachusetts. Now it’s moved into Vermont, and pretty soon people will need to go to Canada to get any decent snow.”

The good news is that it’s not too late to take meaningful action. Addressing climate change ultimately requires decisions to be made far beyond the Berkshires, but many individuals and groups have taken steps to reduce fossil fuel emissions. Locally, preserving forests, which absorb carbon dioxide, is a top priority, said William Moomaw, a lead author of five Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, who lives in Williamstown.

“It’s not possible to reduce our emissions from fossil fuels rapidly enough to avoid serious irreversible changes,” Moomaw said. “But if we could increase the removal of carbon from the atmosphere while decreasing emissions, we would avoid the worst effects.”

Warmer and wetter weather

Berkshire County likely will experience climate impacts most severely through greater precipitation.

Increasing water temperatures in the Great Lakes may bring more “lake-effect” precipitation to the Berkshires, said David Dethier, a Williams College professor emeritus of geology and mineralogy.

“If dry air blows over the lakes when they’re not frozen — and they’ve not been frozen — you get just enough moisture, and as soon as it gets lifted downwind you get precipitation,” Dethier said. “You even have the effect with Lake Champlain, but certainly Erie, Ontario, you get enhanced precipitation.”

Between 2000 and 2021, an average of 53.29 inches of precipitation fell at the Hopkins Memorial Forest weather station in Williamstown. Meanwhile, an average of 39.27 inches was recorded in the first 22 years of the 1900s, and an average of 43.25 inches fell in the last 22 years of the century.

Locals already may have noticed more frequent flooding from increased precipitation. Last summer, for instance, brought record rains that saturated local farms and flooded roads. Larger storms also lead to more frequent power outages.

“In this region, as the climate has gotten wetter we’re seeing impacts such as basement flooding, septic system failures and flooding of farm fields,” said Michael Rawlins, an extension associate professor at UMass Amherst, where he also serves as associate director of the Climate System Research Center.

Flooding

A road crew from White Wolf contractors assesses the severity and potential restoration of a washed out road in Sherwood Forest in Becket due to flooding in 2011 as a result of Tropical Storm Irene. 

Increased temperatures will have direct impacts as well. Worsening summer heat may take a toll on people who do not have air conditioning, making heat stroke and other negative health impacts more common. In 2019, extreme heat led several municipalities to open cooling centers.

Warmer winters, perhaps most noticeably, will result in more days with less snow on the ground, or none at all.

“I actually had a young person ask me, did you really used to have snow more consistently?” said Jane Winn, executive director of Berkshire Environmental Action Team. “My gosh, I remember digging through four-foot high snow banks during Christmas time.”

Skiing, one of Berkshire County’s most notable and lucrative tourist sectors, is almost certain to suffer, although adapting to a changing climate may bring success for other aspects of outdoor tourism. All major Berkshire County ski resorts have invested in mountain biking and outdoor adventure activities that may increase their year-round appeal to tourists, said 1Berkshire President and CEO Jonathan Butler.

“While certainly skiing is directly impacted by shortened winter seasons, the other components of outdoor recreation aren’t,” Butler said, identifying outdoor recreation as a growing segment of local tourism. “Hikers are going to hike whether they’re wearing their boots, spikes or snow shoes.”

“Things like ice fishing might be experiencing shorter seasons,” Butler said. “On the flip side, we might see an expansion of other activities on our lakes.”

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Funding crunch

Responding to climate impacts affects the finances of cities and towns as well.

As floods cause more culverts to fail, municipal governments need to replace them. While a range of state grants provide support, tight money can prevent the replacement of smaller culverts with bridges or larger culverts, which withstand storms better.

“You need bigger culverts because the short-term storms keep ruining the culverts, and there are probably a lot of environmental reasons to have larger culverts for fish to swim through,” Dethier said. “But there’s big money required. Some of it is pretty simple, if expensive.”

Cities and towns have responded in part through planning. Several Berkshire municipalities have worked with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission to develop “hazard mitigation” plans, BRPC Executive Director Thomas Matuszko said.

State funding for road, bridge and culvert repairs, however, almost always falls short, leaving a gap of up to $380 million each year, Auditor Suzanne Bump concluded in an October report. Smaller towns, like Mount Washington, often need to save state funds for a few years until they have enough to complete a paving project.

Especially in southern Berkshire County, rising winter temperatures has increased the costs of maintaining dirt roads. Rather than freezing once at the start of winter and thawing in the spring, roads have been freezing and thawing throughout the winter. Muddy conditions often make those roads impassable, requiring increased maintenance and funds.

“It doesn’t impress the lawmakers in the eastern part of the state, but the curse of multiple thaws every winter is a curse indeed,” Dethier said.

In the thick of mud season, study gives traction to South County dirt roads' plight

Weakening ecosystems

Warmer and wetter conditions likely are making it easier for invasive species and pests, such as ticks, to survive in the Berkshires. 

Those species may cause disruptions to ecosystems, threatening not only the viability of native species but the ability of those ecosystems to mitigate future climate impacts.

Art, the retired biology and environmental studies professor, has researched changes in Hopkins Forest’s species diversity. A recent concern has been that increased temperatures and moisture can give invasive species, which often cause harm, an edge over native species, which may struggle in changing conditions.

Hot weather

Construction worker Manuel Ferreira, of Ludlow, takes a break to wipe sweat from his face as he and others work on a job site on Walden Street in Williamstown as dangerous heat and humidity impacted the area on Aug. 28, 2018.

The vine of a rapidly spreading invasive species known as oriental bittersweet can wrap around trees so tightly that it can kill them — “it strangles the vine,” Art said. Barberry, another invasive species, provides prime habitat for ticks, which typically struggle in cold winters but have become more active year-round as temperatures have risen. The sap-sucking, tree-killing hemlock woolly adelgid has reached Stockbridge, and it will be “just a matter of time” for that invasive species to spread throughout the county, Art said, although he added that changes in species diversity often take decades.

Losing native species weakens ecosystems, and weaker ecosystems provide less resistance to climate change and its impacts. Trees and plants use carbon dioxide to produce their energy, and a 2011 study found that forests remove an amount of carbon equivalent to one third of fossil fuel emissions each year. Moreover, strong forests can reduce flooding and have other climate benefits, Moomaw, the former IPCC scientist, said.

“Berkshire County is probably at least 5 degrees, maybe 7 to 8 degrees cooler in the summer because of the forests that are here, evaporating water and providing shade, and the water that they evaporate is water that is not running off in floods,” he said. “And as a bonus, they also clean the air [and] purify water.”

Massachusetts forests have come under threat in recent years from an unlikely culprit: large-scale solar energy installations. Around half of solar developments in Massachusetts are built on forest land, Clark University researchers found last year, and solar energy developers tend to favor forests because less expensive land means greater profits.

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With the receding waters of the Cleveland Reservoir in Dalton in the background, Pittsfield’s largest municipal reservoir, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer announced the rollout of the city’s next phase of its drought management plan in September 2020. The plan includes a transition from voluntary to mandatory restrictions on water use by residents. 

While Art and Moomaw both see solar energy as a key piece of slowing climate change through reducing fossil fuel use — and both have solar panels on their houses — they warn that it is harmful to lose forests when other options are available for solar development, such as rooftops, landfills and industry-contaminated brownfields.

“We need to be removing more carbon from the atmosphere than we’re putting in,” Moomaw said. “I’m a firm believer in solar energy, but it makes absolutely no sense to cut down a forest that is working every day to remove carbon and making us more resilient to intense rain events.” 

Besides, he said, “People don’t come here to see forests cut down or solar arrays. Our big selling point is that we have nature.”

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle’s Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.

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