New England’s forests, fisheries and cultural traditions are already experiencing significant disruptions from a changing climate and will face additional transformation over the coming decades, according to a federal report released Friday.

Northeastern states are seeing some of the largest changes in the nation, yet conditions are shifting even faster in New England than the region as a whole, in some instances. Annual average temperatures in New England, for example, rose by roughly 3 degrees since the beginning of the last century compared to 1.8 degrees in the contiguous United States.

Those temperature changes – combined with shifts in precipitation levels and rapid warming in the Gulf of Maine – will continue to impact the health, economy and aging infrastructure of the region.

“For example, because much of the historical development of industry and commerce in New England occurred along rivers, canals, coasts, and other bodies of water, these areas often have a higher density of contaminated sites, waste management facilities, and petroleum storage facilities that are potentially vulnerable to flooding,” reads the report from 13 federal agencies.

“As a result, increases in flood frequency or severity could increase the spread of contaminants into soils and waterways, resulting in increased risks to the health of nearby ecosystems, animals, and people – a set of phenomena well documented following Superstorm Sandy,” the report says.

While the political debate over climate change continues, there is little doubt among fishermen or the scientists who work with them that the Gulf of Maine is changing. Maine fishermen now routinely see species once found only in southern or mid-Atlantic states while stocks of northern shrimp and cod have been depleted or moved north to cooler waters.

The report cited numerous examples of New England fishermen attempting to adapt to those changes and acknowledged that the arrival of new species will create new opportunities. But the authors also warned that markets, shoreside infrastructure as well as regulatory restriction on what fishermen can catch are often slower to respond.

Scientists also predict that species particularly important to New England face a bleaker future because of rising acidity levels as the oceans absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

“Species population models projected forward under future ocean conditions also indicate declines of species that support some of the most valuable and iconic fisheries in the Northeast, including Atlantic cod, Atlantic sea scallops, and American lobster,” reads the report. “In addition, species that are already endangered and federally protected in the Northeast – such as Atlantic sturgeon, Atlantic salmon, and right whales – are expected to be further threatened by climate change.”

The Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s Andrew Pershing says the federal report aims to foster “clear-eyed” understanding.

Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the lead author of the report’s “Oceans” section, said the document makes clear that steps must be taken to reduce climate-warming emissions in order to mitigate some of the most severe impacts. The report, Pershing said, is the scientific community’s attempt to ensure the American public and policymakers have a “clear-eyed” understanding of the facts to inform those decisions.

“Except in one area of Alaska, everywhere in the U.S. is going to see a decline in the fishing catch, … and that is going to have a large impact on the state of Maine because fishing is such an important part of the economy,” Pershing said.

Over the next 10 to 30 years, Pershing said, Maine has the potential to maintain some of these valuable fisheries – such as lobster – with smart management and a focus on building resiliency to climate changes. But the future is fuzzier after, say, 2040 or 2050, especially if the more dire scenarios for climate change play out.

The federal report’s dire warnings and definitive language contrasts sharply with the rhetoric coming from President Trump, who has repeatedly questioned the threat posed by climate change as well as the role that humans are playing.

Critics accused the Trump administration of attempting to “bury” the report by releasing it on the Friday after Thanksgiving. But Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, said she and other members of the incoming Democratic majority in the U.S. House won’t let it “fall into the abyss.”

Pingree said the report – coming on the heels of a similarly ominous report from a United Nations panel – “gives us the facts to base our work on.”

Pingree said policy committees are likely to dive into climate-related issues and work to stop some of the Trump administration’s attempts to undo environmental regulations adopted during the Obama administration. There is also growing talk about the need for a special congressional committee focused exclusively on climate change.

“I think there is a lot we can do,” said Pingree, who serves on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and the Environment. “The committees have been very dormant in the Republican-controlled House, but I think they will be extremely active on this issue” under Democratic leadership.

U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, also regarded the report as another call to action for Congress.

“As today’s report makes abundantly clear, we are grossly failing ourselves and our children in the face of an increasingly dangerous threat,” King said in a statement. “It’s time to listen to the scientists who have for decades warned of the serious consequences of climate change for our economy, our ecosystems and our national defense. Generations of future Americans will judge us harshly for anything less than a full response to this crisis – not denial, not excuses, not equivocation. We need to act, and we need to act now.”

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, also expressed concern about the report’s conclusions.

“We cannot ignore the impact of climate change on our public health, our environment, and our economy,” she said in a statement late Friday night, adding that the report echoed the findings of a nonpartisan GAO study that she and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., requested last year.

“In Maine, our economy is inextricably linked to the environment,” Collins continued. “We are experiencing a real change in the sea life, which has serious implications for the livelihoods of many people across our state, including those who work in our iconic lobster industry.

“The release of this analysis should cause all of us, including the Administration, to take a harder look at the economic consequences of inaction and use what is known about climate risks to inform federal policy.”

 

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