Scientists and wildlife experts agree that Maine’s ecosystem is changing, and the insects, mammals and trees are giving us early warning signals that the changes are happening quickly.
The Maine of the future will feature warmer winters, less snow cover and increased rain and sleet, Paul Mayewski, director of the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, said during a recent interview. As the Atlantic Ocean begins to warm, Maine will see more hurricane and tropical storm activity, which will change the face of the state’s rugged coastline, and its cherished moose could disappear completely.
“Over the next few decades, the climate in Maine will become much more like northern Massachusetts,” Mayewski said.
Whatever the terminology used to describe the phenomenon – global warming or climate change – scientists say the process already is under way and is tangible, and no one will have to wait for centuries to see the impact.
Ã¤ Recently, some financial institutions in Maine began requiring termite inspections of houses before approving home loans. Scientists say the appearance of termites this far north is one of many subtle signs of a shift under way in Maine’s ecosystem.
Ã¤ Opossums and gray fox, traditionally found as far north as southern New England, now roam as far north as Augusta.
Ã¤ Turkey vultures, once rare in Maine, are seen throughout the state.
Ã¤ A new type of mosquito, seen previously only in southern climes, is spreading into Maine, and all species of ticks are widening their ranges at amazing rates, according to experts.
Ã¤ As the sea level rises with the melting of glaciers and the polar ice caps, high tides are swallowing coastal Maine homes, and clay cliffs are falling into the ocean.
George Jacobson, a University of Maine professor of biology, said in a recent interview that even a 2- to 3-degree temperature shift could have profound effects on Maine’s plant life.
“It may not seem that a few degrees would mean that much, but it would mean that Maine would be quite a different place as far as forests and vegetation, much more like Connecticut or New Jersey,” he said.
Jacobson said Maine’s spruce and fir forests may begin to fill in with more hardwoods, and flowering trees and shrubs once not able to bloom here will thrive. Jacobson said the shift already is noticeable with the blooming patterns of blue hydrangeas, lilacs and forsythias proliferating in Maine’s landscape. Those shrubs are particularly sensitive to the cold and snow levels.
Impact on wildlife
While managing Maine’s wildlife, game wardens are in a particularly good position to track changes. As they inspected moose carcasses at Greenville during Maine’s moose hunt last fall, they found the animals’ bodies were covered with dog ticks.
“They have never been seen on moose this far north before,” Wally Jakubas, the mammals group leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said during a recent interview. He blames higher temperatures and a shifting climate.
“We are already seeing moose at the southern end of their range,” he said. Now moose mortality is increasing because of winter ticks.
“It is scary how these insects can remove more protein than a moose can take in,” Jakubas said. It was not unusual last fall to count more than 100,000 ticks on a young moose.
“Insects and their proliferation are very temperature-dependent,” he said.
As winter severity eases and summer temperatures rise, Jakubas said, the tick population has increased and shifted northward. He said that in the future, it won’t be a matter of the moose heading farther north. “They just won’t survive,” he said.
Decreased snowfall amounts will affect other animals, too, Jakubas said. “Lynx have a greater hunting advantage in deep snow,” he said. “Their population distribution may change. Gray fox, one of the few dogs that can actually climb trees, have been seen as far north as Augusta.”
State veterinarian Don Hoenig said that as he traveled around the state 20 years ago, it was a rare experience to spot a turkey vulture. “Now they are everywhere,” he said.
Herb Wilson, an ornithologist in Colby College’s biology department, agreed. For 14 years, Wilson has coordinated the volunteer network that documents the arrival dates of 115 migratory bird species.
“Over the next 50 years, we are going to see earlier and earlier arrivals” because of the warmer spring weather, he said.
In addition, Wilson said that a number of species – northern cardinal, northern mockingbird, tufted titmouse and the turkey vulture – were quite rare in Maine. “Now they are quite common,” he said.
“I’m quite concerned about the long-term effects of climate change on Maine’s vegetation, which determines the birds’ food supply,” he said.
At Maine Medical Center’s Research Institute in Portland, the Vector Borne Disease Laboratory conducts surveillance for the state on ticks and mosquitoes. Ticks are found as far north as Aroostook County, research associate Bruce Cahill said, and a new species of mosquito, japonicus, arrived here about five years ago.
“This [the mosquito] is a vector for some diseases such as West Nile [virus],” Cahill said.
Coastal land shifts
“The things I am seeing suggest profound changes to our coast,” Joseph Kelly, University of Maine professor of marine geology and member of The Climate Institute, said recently.
He said that Maine’s beaches are retreating at a fairly rapid rate because of rising seawater levels.
“The tide gauge at Eastport shows it rising 2 millimeters a year,” Kelly said.
“You used to go to a beach and first there were sand dunes, then shrubs and then pitch pine,” Kelly said. “Now the pitch pine is almost on the beach. They don’t belong there.”
The changes also are putting coastal properties at risk. Recent April storms that brought astronomical high tides proved Kelly’s theory when several homes in southern Maine were swallowed by the sea.
“For thousands of years, the sea level rose slowly,” Kelly said. “But in 1912, the rate of rising shot up by a factor of 10. Louisiana, for example, lost 25 square miles of salt marsh last year.”
Kelly said that as the seawater rises, individual pools begin opening up in marshes, which eventually connect and eliminate the marsh.
“We are starting to see this in Maine,” he said.
Kelly is overseeing two separate studies on rising water. Eroding salt marshes are being studied in Lubec, Wells and Scarborough, along with freshwater bogs that are being converted to salt water as the ocean creeps inland.
Kelly said that much of Maine’s coast contains clay bluffs, and as they erode, “I am concerned that properties built 50 years ago are suddenly not so far back from the ocean.” He said he receives at least two telephone calls a month from Maine landowners who are losing their property and buildings to coastal erosion.
“I’m petrified when I think about the Arctic ice melting,” Kelly said. “I can see the impact of that in many places in Maine already, and I have a sense it is accelerating and there is little we can do.”
“In biology, things are not necessarily straightforward,” DIF&W mammal specialist Jakubas said. “Climate changes are compounded by changes in forest practices and hunting. Right now we are dealing with [resulting] habitat changes, unrelated to climate, that are affecting our whitetail deer population.
“My guess is we will begin to see major changes when vegetation and snowfall amounts really change,” he said.
Meanwhile, Jakubas said it is important to remember two things: Maine’s ecosystem is far less affected at this point than ecosystems in other places, such as in Alaska, yet small changes can prompt larger and more dramatic changes.
In Alaska, where the average temperature has risen 7 degrees in the past 30 years, glaciers are dramatically receding, and insects never before seen in the state have decimated millions of acres of trees. Places along Alaska’s coast are experiencing daily thunderstorms when one a year was normal just a few years ago.
“The changes there have been profound,” Jakubas said.
Here in Maine, the changes are not as pronounced, he clarified.
“We need to keep this in perspective,” he said. “These are small, subtle shifts. They may be unseen, but they have the potential to sneak up on you.”
Mayewski of UM’s Climate Change Institute sees a silver lining in the climate change cloud.
“This is our great wake-up call,” Mayewski said. “If in fact we have been truly awakened, this is a great opportunity for us to clean up the environment and have a significantly better quality of life. We are on the verge of a very exciting period.”
Mayewski said Maine is better off than many other states and is in a good position to make immediate and long-lasting changes that can minimize the overall impact of climate change.
“There are so many possibilities out there,” Mayewski said. “Maine, with its small population, is a state full of creative and independent people. This could be Maine’s opportunity to shine.”