The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

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The Fog of…Fog

The other day, I went on a walk with my friend and teacher, Tom Wessels, whose name has appeared many times in this blog because he is an actual expert whose authority I can legitimately cite, and because he so consistently tells me things worth citing.

This walk was no exception.

We chatted about all sorts of things, scientific and otherwise, and generally had a good time. Other than the walk itself—we were trying to get to a particular place and explore it—we had no agenda. I’m not going to tell you all about that conversation, though much of it would interest you. I am going to tell you what he said about climate change.

Question: What Is About to Change?

In the course of our walk I asked “What is likely to change here [on Mount Dessert Island] over the next few decades, other than trees getting bigger and so forth?”

He’d already told me about the impending loss of paper birch, so he mentioned that again only in passing. He also discussed the problems of spruces, another previously discussed topic, elaborating this time that the island isn’t about to lose its spruces, but their life expectancy is being cut from 400 years to less than 100, for reasons he does not entirely understand, but climate change is likely involved as contributing stress, since they are cold-climate trees. Something is causing them to rot.

Then he told me something I did not know at all, but should have: that Mount Dessert Island is on track to lose its fogs. Not all its foggy days, perhaps, but many of them. The island will no longer be characterized by frequent fogs.

I should have known it because I knew both pieces of information that he cited as evidence. I knew that we get so much fog here because the Gulf of Maine is very cold, and I also knew that the Gulf of Maine is getting rapidly warmer. Therefore….

The Problem with the Loss of Fog

I like fog. It’s spooky and mysterious and lovely. I don’t want there to be less of it around here. But aesthetics are not the primary reason why the loss of fog would be a problem, and I didn’t need Tom to tell me what the real problem was—or, rather, I didn’t need him to tell me just then. I already knew about the ecological importance of fog around here, and I knew because he told me the better part of a decade ago.

The thing is, Mt. Dessert Island owes much of its identity to fog. A large number of natural history questions around here can be answered the same way; “because it’s so foggy.”

Most dramatically, frequent fogs allow the lichens on trees to grow much faster than they otherwise would—lichens can only grow when they’re wet, and those on bark, as opposed to soil, dry out quickly. Fog keeps them wet. And so here lichen growth is responsible for 40% of the forest’s overall nutrient balance. Less fog = less lichen = an impoverished forest.

Northern white cedar, one of the lovelier trees on the island, is also here because of fog. It requires calcium-rich soil, which our mostly granite bedrock would normally preclude, but fog motes each contain a speck of dust, and a cloud of fog contains a lot of motes and therefore a lot of dust. All that dust enriches the soil with calcium. Northern white cedar is, in fact, especially good at catching fog. I asked Tom if the cedars would be hurt by the loss of fog, and he said they might well be.

He said the fog problem will be apparent within the next fifty years, which is not a lot of time as such things go.

The Problem with Foggy Losses

As I said, I had overlooked the possibility that fog frequency could be altered as part of climate change. I’m not sure why. I’ve never before heard anyone else raise the issue, but I don’t know why I didn’t draw the conclusion myself.

What I’m wondering now is what else does climate change hold in store that nobody is talking about and that I don’t guess?

Even worse, is fog frequency already changing—without anyone talking about it?

I didn’t ask Tom. I could, but he doesn’t actually know everything, and it’s possible no one has yet crunched the relevant numbers. He is familiar with the island and its fogginess, but human beings are notoriously bad at assessing these types of trends, that’s why we invented statistics. It’s just not the sort of change we can reliably eyeball.

He said the change would be apparent within fifty years, but what does “apparent” mean? Is that when fog lessens enough to make a difference, or is that when the forests’ response to the loss becomes evident to casual human observation? If the latter, the fog might already be changing—both lichens and northern white cedars grow very slowly. Were their growth to slow even more, the difference would take a long time to add up.

How long? I don’t know. Maybe close to fifty years?

Question: What’s Changing Now?

One of the more disconcerting discoveries I made when I became an adult was that there were important topics where I was dangerously ignorant but had thought myself well-educated. I had heard simplified descriptions created for teens or as public talking points, and they had given me a clear picture of the situation with no apparent holes or gaps. So I had thought there were no gaps. I thought I knew all I needed to.

There were holes and gaps, of course, I had just been unintentionally misled by the skill with which the introductory talking points were constructed.

Simplified explanations are not bad. If well-constructed, they cover most of the important points of the subject in question while being accessible enough to reach beginners whose attention may be elsewhere. The important thing is to recognize them as simplifications. As I wrote last week, much of what most of us know about climate change is correct, but it’s simplified.

There are important things happening that we don’t always see.

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Moving Landmarks

I have spent the past weekend traveling—a few days in southern New Hampshire, and now in coastal Maine. I have been experiencing weather and, by extension, climate not normally my own.

Of New Hampshire….

The Ashuelot River looked like an overfilled bathtub. The swimming beach at the nearby Swanzey Lake (which is more properly a pond) looked as though the tide had come in. Puddles escaped out of ditches and inched across trails. Everywhere throughout that part of New Hampshire was water, water, and more water. I used to live thereabouts, which is how I recognized the water level as unusual, but I have seen the rivers high before. The odd thing is that when the Ashuelot runs high, it usually turns a chocolate-milk color with eroded sediment. Most rivers, in my experience, do.

This time the river ran dark, its standard low-water color.

The paradoxical color told me that the high water wasn’t the result of rapid storm runnoff but of the slow, even seepage of the water-table, the low-water pattern of movement transposed to a much wetter version of the landscape.

Indeed, friends reported that it had started raining back in November and more or less never stopped, although the air was dry during our visit. One said she’d heard that although the rain has been deeply and dramatically unusual, the water-table is actually normal, now. So many years of drought had actually dried out the land so much that it took a six-month-long flood to make up the difference.

But if the water table is normal, is the high river and everything else likewise? Was the Keene area as I knew it always warped by drought?

Of Maine….

Here on the coast, now, the story is cold. The neighbor who brought his child to see our dogs told us he couldn’t work this spring—he digs clams, and otherwise harvests the sea—because until recently the harbors were frozen. This was the first week of the season temperatures rose above sixty degrees. Everybody’s talking about the cold, late spring.

My question is—is the spring really cold and late? Or is it a version of normal we haven’t seen in a while?

Of Normality….

I don’t know whether the wet and dry of New Hampshire or the cold and warm of Maine are especially symptomatic of climate change, but this uncertainty regarding normality certainly is.

Emotionally speaking, we recognize climate change is a sickening, frightening abnormality. The heat wave in January, the drought that eats whole reservoirs, the hurricane making landfall where no hurricane should be. But to recognize the abnormal, one must have a feel for the normal, and “normal” has been a moving target for decades, now.

It’s not unusual for winters warmer than the historical average to feel cold and long and hard because recent winters have all been warmer yet.

When your landmarks are moving, how can you be sure where you are?

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Seeing Patterns

Last week, I had the distinct pleasure of a hike on Mount Desert Island with my friend and teacher, Tom Wessels–the same man who lead the hike in the White Mountains described in my post, The Ghost of White Birches. Only, then he was leading an organized group activity associated with the school I’d just graduated. This time, for the first time, we were just friends going hiking together.

Myself, my husband, our elderly but still spry dogs, and him.

Switching contexts can have an unpredictable effect on relationships, and I can be slow on the uptake when the rules change. I had left it to Tom to suggest a hike, rather than saying so myself, because I did not want him to think I was expecting him to work on his day off. But as it happened, I need not have worried. Nothing had really changed between us. And while he had no planned lectures, no educational objectives, and had not previously hiked our whole route (as a professor, he appears to meticulously plan everything), he still kept us appraised of the cultural and natural history around us, knowing and sharing our interest. Tom is not one of those people who wears radically different hats for changing circumstance. He is always and exactly himself.

He told us that part of the trail we followed ran along the bed of the first road on the island. He pointed out a big-toothed aspen so furrowed with age that it looked like an ancient cottonwood, and how two other trees of the same size and species nearby must be much younger, having smoother bark.* He commented that the rhodora was coming into bloom. He answered questions, asked and unasked.

“Sap,” he said, spotting me examining a mass of white stuff at the base of a tree. I had thought it was either sap or bird urine and that either way it indicated some story. “These spruces are not doing well. Fungus comes in, then ants, then woodpeckers. Carpenter ants can’t excavate healthy wood.” The sap had flowed from the work of a pileated woodpecker, going after carpenter ants.

I knew from previous conversations that one of the reasons the spruces are becoming more vulnerable is climate change.

Much of Mount Desert Island is dominated by spruces, a cold-tolerant genus of tree that is rare at this latitude. The island–and the coast of Maine generally–is different because the frigid Humbolt Current bathes the land in cool sea breezes and cold sea fogs. According to rangers at Acadia National Park, which includes much of the island, the Gulf of Maine is now warming faster than almost any other water body in the world. Lobsters are moving north, to the detriment of lobstermen in southern New England. Southern fish species are moving in. In warm years, every puffin chick in the state starves to death, unable to swallow the larger, southern fish their parents bring.

I was right to think the white stuff at the base of the tree held a story.

Tom sees patterns. In a somewhat different and still less-developed way, so do I. A hiker without this kind of knowledge would see a pristine wilderness, protected in perpetuity by the US Park Service. Tom sees spruces not doing well (and paper birches dying off, lobsters moving, puffins starving) and is saddened.

There is a certain comfort to be had by sharing your reality with another. We chat about our home, mine and my husband’s, in Maryland, and how our forested lot prevents our having a garden, or a solar panel, or a wind turbine, but does protect us from the damaging effects of winds. In the ten years I’ve been there, I say, we’ve survived two hurricanes (Sandy and Irene) and a derecho, and the wind mostly flows over the tops of the trees.

“Those will happen more frequently, because of climate change,” comments Tom. We know. My husband talks about the changes he’s seen in Assateague Island in the forty years he’s been watching the place. Casual visitors don’t see that, either, only an unspoiled, wild beach, but we have friends who were married in a house on that beach and the house is not there anymore. The place where it stood is now several yards off shore. Maryland is slowly sinking, a natural subsidence triggered by the retreat of the glaciers tens of thousands of years ago, but sea level rise from climate change is real, too.

Last month, in St. Michaels, a town on the Chesapeake Bay, I saw water quietly lapping over the edge of the town dock, standing a few inches deep on pavement. Nobody else said anything. Nobody acknowledged it was happening, let alone extraordinary. Tidal height can vary. There is the influence of the moon’s phase, of course, since full moons and new moons produce extreme tides, and an onshore wind can pile up water on the coast. If both occur at the same time, tides can become extraordinary quite naturally.

But the town dock would not have been built where it was if flooding were normal at the time of its construction.

Last night I dreamed that nothing I did turned out right, that I was driving down winding country roads, lost, that the roads became dangerously, fantastically steep so I pulled over, only to watch my parked car roll down hill into the back of another. The metaphor of my subconscious is clear; I don’t know what to do about any of these patterns.

My mother and I discuss politics over breakfast. We are both worried about the survival of democracy. I go to bed with a hard knot of anxiety, the same nauseous fear that has plagued me since the election. I attend marches, write political letters, sign petitions, keep this blog, but there is something else that must be done, some stronger, more effective way to fight, but through the fog of anxiety, I don’t see it. Other than to acknowledge the truth, share my reality, I don’t know what to do.


  • The rate at which wood grows varies, as many people know, but the bark of each species grows at a nearly constant rate. Thus, an individual growing more slowly than normal for its species will have thicker, more textured bark. With some few exceptions, trunk size plus bark texture gives a better indication of tree age than either does alone.


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Your Tuesday Update: The State of the State

So, being in Maine at present, I decided to do an online search for “climate change Maine” and see what happened. What I got was a report on the state’s present and future climate, an update on a more extensive report on the same topic conducted several years earlier. It’s dry but quite readable–and it’s shorter than it looks, since many of the pages don’t actually have a lot of text on them. You can get an overview of the state of the state, as it were, in just a few minutes.

To read the report, click here.

I won’t try to summarize the whole thing, but here are a few highlights:

  • Air temperatures have increased, especially in the winter. The warm season is about two weeks longer, now.
  • Overall precipitation has increased.
  • The number of extreme precipitation events has increased (including extreme snow).
  • Ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Maine are rising faster than in the ocean as a whole.
  • The Gulf of Maine is more vulnerable to ocean acidification than is the ocean as a whole.
  • Practical impacts of these changes include increased risk of heat stroke, Lyme disease, and flooding, as well as disruption to fisheries, agriculture, and winter tourism.

The report concludes with a list of information resources.

I haven’t checked every state, but it looks like at least most of them have commissioned similar reports and they’re easy to find online. What is the outlook for your state?


Jellyfish Tide

These days I’m living on the Schoodic Peninsula, in Maine–being a writer means my work is portable. Schoodic is just up the coast from Mount Dessert Island, so today my husband and I decided to take the ferry over to Bar Harbor for the afternoon. We had a great time. On the way over, I spotted some large, red round round thing floating several feet down in the cold, green water going by beside the boat.

“Hey, I think I just saw a lion’s mane!” I said. Lion’s manes are jellyfish, huge, colorful jellyfish, relatively common in Maine, but I’d never seen one before–they’re cold-water animals and don’t come south to Maryland where I live. We have the tiny but venomous sea nettles and the colorless moon jellies that range up and down the coast. Most moon jellies I’ve seen are about six or eight inches across with a short fringe of threadlike tentacles. A really big one could be up to fifteen inches. In water, they are the translucent white of old sea glass. Lion’s manes are partially clear, but flushes at their centers with orange, red, or purple. A big one can be up to eight feet across with tentacles a hundred feet long. The record-holder was a hundred and twenty feet long, making it among the world’s largest animals.

That one I saw was probably three or four feet across and I could not see its tentacles.

Then, just a few minutes later, I spotted another one, smaller and closer to the surface–obviously a big, red jellyfish. And that was odd. It’s not like I’d never looked down into the water in Maine before, and the second lion’s mane I see is just a few hundred feet from the first? Could there be a bloom going on? When jellyfish reproduce quickly and congregate in large numbers it is called a bloom, just as when algae do the same thing. Jellyfish may be large animals, but they are plankton, floating at the mercy of the current, same as algae–the pulsing of their bells moves them around a bit, but they are not strong swimmers and in any case can’t steer.

We arrived in Bar Harbor, went shopping, and had lunch together on an open deck beneath ash and maple trees. Then, with just an hour or so before we needed to catch the ferry, we decided to take part of the Shore Path along the sea. It’s a pleasant walk along the foot of some very elegant private homes and businesses. A cement sea wall divides the land from the rock slopes and cobbles of the inter-tidal zone and its small, quiet waves. We reached the end, turned, and headed back.

And there, among the rocks and sea weed, was another lion’s mane jellyfish.

It was only about twenty inches across. It had been battered already by even the mild surf of the harbor and was clearly dead, its tentacles ripped away and its edges fraying. Each wavelet pushed it in and out of a small crevice in the rock like a miniature cove. My husband walked off, leaving me to investigate the unfortunate animal.

Nearby, there were three more lion’s mane jellies, in similar size and condition.

Two young men spotted the jellies and remarked on them. We spoke and I told them what I knew, that jellyfish populations may be expanding because of climate change, there have certainly been a lot more anecdotal reports in the last two years, but no one really knows because there is no good baseline data. Scientists are asking members of the public who see jellies in Maine to contact them and report it. I knew all this because I wrote a post on it a few weeks ago. I told them how to contact the relevant scientists and make a report. They thanked me and one of the men told me that he’s lived here all his life and he’s only ever seen jellyfish twice in his life–and the other time was last year. Another anecdote, but he agrees the situation seems weird. We wished each other good day and parted.

Just then, my cell phone rang. It was my mother, just “calling to call,” as she sometimes does. We chatted for a minute or so before I thought to tell her that I’d just seen my first lion’s mane jellyfish…and my second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth. She was suitably impressed and I told her I planned to call it in.

“I mean, when you see six jellyfish in the same day,” I explained, walking along the path, “I mean, seven. Wait, let me double-count…yes, there’s seven. Oh! Eight!”


“Nine…ten…this is remarkable.”

“I know, you are are remarking on it.”


“This is spooky.”



But I couldn’t stop, because there were more jellyfish. I’d go a hundred feet and not see one, but then there’d be three in a row. Sometimes there was one every ten feet. Once there were two, each about two feet across, lying on top of each other at the waterline. I used a stick to separate them so I could see better. They were heavy, the thick texture of peeled grapes. Once I saw a small one, perhaps a foot across, up on dry rock well above the water line. The tide was rising, so I’m sure somebody had moved it. All of the jellies were lion’s manes and they were all dead and battered. And they were hard to see, since part of their bodies were clear and the other part was the same color as the seaweed floating around them. I’m sure I missed some in plain sight. Where a fin of rock got in the way or if the angle of the sun prevented my looking in the water I’m sure I missed more.

By the time I got back to the ferry dock I’d counted fifty-two (plus the two I’d seen from the ferry on the way over). I’d walked less than a mile of coastline.

I tell this story, not because it told me anything I didn’t know when I wrote my last post on jellyfish, and not because fifty-some jellyfish in one place couldn’t have happened before human-caused climate change. It’s because more jellyfish blooms is probably part of the new normal of a changing climate and this is what it feels like to be confronted by the new normal–it is a queasy, uncomfortable feeling. You want to say, as my mother did, “stop!”

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Your Tuesday Update: Lobsters

Earlier today, I heard someone on the  TV news that Southern New England’s lobster catch is at an “historic low” this year, while Maine’s lobster catch is very high. Climate change may explain the shift, as it forces lobsters to migrate north to find cooler water. I have been unable to find these exact statements online and I did not record the details of the TV announcement–but the lobster fishery is generally in trouble, both from the warmer water itself and from the acidifying ocean which tends to nibble away at their shells. Curiously, the Gulf of Maine is warming extremely fast right now, much faster than most other ocean regions, and no one is exactly sure why–but the change is bringing southern species into these waters and pushing the more familiar animals north.

What I’m wondering right now–I’ve heard (from actual scientist friends) that Maine’s lobster fishery is sustainable, that it’s current system of licensed lobster fishers actually works. But what is sustainable under one set of circumstances might not be when circumstances change. My concern now is–if a northward migration is causing the lobster population in Maine waters to increase, might that simply be a sign of the same number of lobsters squished into a smaller area? And might the greater density create the illusion of a greater number of lobsters and in turn cause an expansion of the harvest? In which case, Maine’s lobsters will face an increase of hunting pressure right when they are already coping with rapidly deteriorating conditions.

This is not good.