Russell Black, a state senator from Wilton, stands in one of his fields Thursday afternoon. Black owns 600 acres and farms beef and pork. “It just isn’t the way it used to be,” said Black, who makes his living in the outdoors.  Andree Kehn/Sun Journal  Buy this Photo

Russell Black prepares hay for harvest in one of his fields in Wilton on Thursday afternoon. Black, a state senator, talked about the scarcity of dry weather in June to dry his hay. “I can’t get four days in a row,” he said. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

WILTON — From moose to mud to maple syrup, the climate crisis is hitting home in Maine with an ever-greater impact.

For 66-year-old Russell Black, a third-generation farmer and a Republican state senator from Wilton, it’s something with which he’s reluctantly learning to live.

“It just isn’t the way it used to be,” Black said recently, as the toll from rising temperatures and wilder, wetter weather forces rural Mainers to change time-honored traditions.

Black is a made-in-Maine man: a farmer, a logger and a maple syrup producer. When he’s not at the State House, he said, he’s pretty much always outdoors.

Weather is the key to his days — and to his livelihood.

That it’s changed dramatically, he said, is impossible to dispute.

Black said that when he began tapping maple trees at age 10, an old farmer told him there was no need to start until mid-March. Year after year, he heard, the first boil of the accumulated sap fell between March 18 and March 20.

It was about as predictable as anything in farming can be.

“Now we have to tap our trees in February,” Black said, and two years ago, during an especially warm spell, the sap began running in January.

Black said a longer planting season is nice, but “what happens if it grows so long that we can’t have syrup?”

Maple trees need “cold nights and warm days” that may grow scarce if the state’s climate becomes more like New Jersey or Pennsylvania has traditionally seen, he said.

It’s a direct consequence of the warming trend seen around the globe, the result of mankind pouring tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every day, creating conditions humanity has never seen before.

“Time has run out” to stop pumping carbon into the air, said Sally Benson, co-director of Stanford University’s Precourt Institute for Energy and director of its Global Climate and Energy Project.

Benson said that unless people begin to make drastic reductions soon, many places around the world will likely become uninhabitable. She said there is time to limit the impact, but it will take “urgent and sustained action” for the next century.

“We shouldn’t lose hope,” said Sean Birkel, Maine’s state climatologist.

For some, he said, “there is a sense of despair,” yet if people make good choices in their personal lives, including voting for candidates who will take the climate crisis seriously, the worst can be avoided.

A Dartmouth study released this year found that the poorest and most rural Northeast counties will suffer most from a hotter climate.

Maine’s Climate Future, 2015

The study’s lead author, Jonathan Winter, an assistant professor of geography and principal investigator of the Applied Hydroclimatology Group at Dartmouth, said to get ready for what’s coming officials should be looking at how to increase access to public spaces with air conditioning and improve health care responses to emergencies initiated or exacerbated by heat.

The study, published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers, found that unless big steps are taken to reduce emissions, people in the rural Northeast will experience three weeks each year of what today is their most sweltering day of the summer.

On the flip side, they’ll see far fewer of the coldest winter days.

In the meantime, though, the warming already taking place is changing life in Maine.

Experts say that Maine’s warm season — when the average daily temperature is above freezing — grew more than a week longer over the course of the 20th century. It is likely to gain an additional two weeks by the time today’s toddlers are in their prime.

Black said he’s seen the difference firsthand.

When he was young, he said, he witnessed winter days that hit 45 degrees below zero.

They were so cold, he said, that his mother’s chickens froze to death in their roosts because the moisture from their breath smothered them as it turned to ice.

“We don’t have that anymore,” Black said.

He said the coldest days now are more like 10 to 15 degrees below zero while the warmest winter days sometimes bring summer-like temperatures. One recent February day topped 80 degrees, Black recalled.

GHOST MOOSE

While warmer weather has its advantages — a longer growing season, less need for heating and simply an easier time getting out and about — it brings with it a host of problems that are only beginning to be understood.

Take, for instance, the horrifying reality of “ghost moose.”

A study this year in the Canadian Journal of Zoology followed the fate of 179 moose calves in New Hampshire and Western Maine during a three-year period beginning in 2014.

It found that 70% of them died, typically in March and April, because so many winter ticks had attached themselves that the blood-deprived moose ran short of the protein and energy they needed to survive.

Black said the problem is directly related to warming temperatures because too many ticks survive each spring, flourish in the hot summers and swell the numbers that attach themselves to moose each fall.

In the past, he said, most of the ticks dropped off the moose in the spring and landed on snow or ice, where they simply died. Now, though, they are more likely to land in leaves and underbrush where they can reproduce and thrive.

Some of the moose collect so many ticks, Black said, that they wind up appearing white from all the huge, blood-swollen ticks covering their bodies.

“They call them ghost moose,” he said, and if the climate keeps warming, one day the only moose in Maine will be ghosts. The actual animals will be gone.

Moose aren’t alone among the state’s threatened creatures. All of “the iconic species of Maine” could be in trouble, said Dylan Voorhees, climate and clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

The fate of lobster in southern New England is instructive.

Once plentiful from Connecticut to the Massachusetts Bay, they have grown scarce enough there to leave only minimal commercial opportunities, one reason that Maine has no real competition for lobster in the United States.

Maine’s Climate Future, 2015

A number of studies show the lobsters are still moving north at a steady pace in pursuit of colder water, gradually shifting so that Maine, once the upper end of the creature’s range, is now on the southern edge of lobster abundance.

As waters continue to warm, changing the ecosystem for many species in the Gulf of Maine, lobsters may leave almost entirely, to the benefit of Canada’s Maritime provinces.

Inland, too, warming water matters.

Maine’s brook trout face “a real, significant threat,” Voorhees said.

Though the Pine Tree State has “some of the last, best brook trout habitat” in the lower 48 states, they rely on cold water that simply may not exist if thermometers keep creeping up, he said.

The population of the common loon, another Maine favorite, has been stable in recent times with about 4,300 adults, a 2018 Maine Audubon report found.

It added, however, that “their future in Maine is at risk” because they need “clean, cold water with a healthy fish population,” something that could be jeopardized by a changing climate’s impact on “lake dynamics, food sources and habitat.”

Even the state bird, the chickadee, may be in trouble.

Maine Audubon told the Legislature this year that the range of one of two species of chickadees in Maine — the boreal chickadee, typically found in the dense northern forests — is gradually shifting northward because of climate change.

If current trends continue, it said, the bird may vanish from Maine as soon as 2050.

The more common black-capped chickadee is moving north at the rate of a mile a year, according to Maine Audubon. It has a long way to go, though, before Maine is no longer a happy place for it.

MORE TICKS, BROWNTAIL MOTHS, ALGAE

One of the problems connected to a warming Maine is that storms tend to be both more severe and more common than in the past.

Farmers generally face a complicated picture, Voorhees said, because they have to figure out how to deal with more chaotic weather that can upend plans and shatter longstanding patterns.

Among the many ways more storms matter is that farmers who used to rely on dry weather in June to cut hay are now finding it difficult to give it time to dry.

“I can’t get four days in a row,” Black said.

Maine’s Climate Future, 2015

June is “getting progressively wetter and wetter and wetter, Black said. “We can’t count on June anymore.”

He said anyone driving around Western Maine in June now will see bales of hay wrapped in plastic to keep the rain off while it dries, something never needed in the past.

Then again, Black added, one recent year it was so dry in May and June that there wasn’t anything to cut.

“The predictability of the weather is extremely hard to figure,” he said.

Black said it leads to many issues, from apple growers with trees that need a long, cold winter to the growing availability of peach trees that can survive in Maine.

“We’re a zone warmer than we used to be” on U.S. Department of Agriculture’s planting guides that lay out what can grow where, Black said. They’re based on 30-year averages.

While it’s sweet to be able to grow peaches, the downside is that unwelcome species that used to be south of Maine can get a foothold farther north, including browntail moths that gobble up tree leaves.

“They’re moving north and damaging our forests,” Black said, and don’t mind Maine’s winters these days.

The ticks that are wreaking havoc on moose aren’t the only ticks out there that are flourishing with warmer temperatures.

Deer ticks and others that happily attach themselves to people are also growing ever more common, experts said. Birkel said deer ticks have “become entrenched” in Maine during the past two decades in part because warmer weather allows more deer to make it through the winter and in part because the insects like the way Maine summers have changed.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, called last week for a more vigorous effort to combat tick-borne illnesses given that the incidence of Lyme disease in the state is 10 times the national average, 107 cases per 100,000 Mainers.

“Other tick-borne diseases are also on the rise in our state,” Collins wrote in a column for the Bangor Daily News. “Babesiosis, a malaria-like disease, has tripled in the past five years, and anaplasmosis, related to rickets, has increased more than five-fold.”

Voorhees said many people have noticed the proliferation of ticks when they’re walking in the woods and fields of Maine. Tick-borne diseases, including Lyme, are increasing.

“We’re past nuisances,” he said. “It’s a serious public health problem.”

He said that as people become more leery of the outdoors, it may begin to take a toll on the state’s all-important tourism business.

Playing into that same concern is the problem of algae blooms in Maine’s many lakes, which are becoming a bigger issue as waters warm and the nutrients that seep in from leaking septic systems and farms fuel green globs of algae, as well as other aquatic plants.

Union of Concerned Scientists

“Our lakes are incredibly important,” Voorhees said, including their appeal for boating and fishing.

At Lake Auburn last fall, the growing algae issue even had an impact on drinking water for Lewiston and Auburn. For weeks before the cold of winter set in, the water flowing through home faucets carried the unpleasant odor of algae.

Even spring is suffering from climate change.

In many rural towns, there have long been eight weeks or so each spring when some rural and forest roads are closed to prevent them from getting destroyed as frozen ground beneath them turns to mud. Some are paved, most are not. They are reopened once the ground dries enough to handle vehicles passing over them.

For loggers, those weeks have been part of life for a long while, a break from mid-March to May following winter operations to move logs from the forest to the mills. Loggers have to get enough of them out of the woods to ensure a good backlog before the roads become impassable.

Black said the winter months are when the wood industry “goes gung-ho,” working all of the time to haul the logs out over the hard ground that can easily sustain heavy trucks full of logs.

“That’s their bread and butter,” he said.

But mud season is no longer predictable.

Black said some places have begun closing roads in mid-February as the weather warms. Some have even shut down in January, he said.

What that means is less income for some of the hardest-working people in the state.

It’s not just temperature change that’s causing trouble. The federal Environmental Protection Agency said precipitation levels are up 10% overall since 1895 and rainfall from severe storms is up 70% since 1958.

Black said he’s seen how summer storms are growing more common and more severe, washing out small bridges built to withstand traditional stream volumes, not an increasing number of once-in-a-century storms.

“It’s tough out here being in business and dealing with Mother Nature,” Black said.

Voorhees said it’s up to society to take steps to address the rising temperatures.

Benson, the Stanford scientist, said people have not done nearly enough to fend off the looming disaster.

“Vigilant and sustained action is needed, beginning now,” she said, urging people and governments to take every possible action to limit carbon emissions.

“It’s really clear that our actions collectively as humanity are still going to determine our future,” Voorhees said. “We are still absolutely in the driver’s seat and our decisions matter. But that window is closing.”

“We shouldn’t lose hope,” Birkel said. Giving in to the “dire and bleak” outlook some see isn’t the answer, he said.

It’s much better, he said, for everyone to do what they can to minimize their impact on the environment and to consider what it takes to adapt to a warmer world.

“We do need to work toward both,” Birkel said.

For Black, it’s clear that people are causing the crisis, which means they can also do more to cope with it and lessen its impact.

He said many of his fellow Republicans and neighbors still don’t see the climate crisis the way he does. “I’m a rarity,” Black said.

“What I go on is my gut and what I see every day,” he said.

He said folks can “twist and move facts any way you want them,” but nothing can change what he sees.

Black said he doesn’t want a hotter Maine transformed into something different than it has always been.

“I like my four seasons,” he said. And that’s what he wants to pass on to future generations of Mainers.

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