As we sit here in late November, the idea of shorter winters may sound inviting. But there’s no doubt Maine has a lot more to lose from climate change besides a week or two of colder temperatures.
In the latest warning from climate scientists, a study published this month in the journal PLoS One found that winter drownings are rising sharply along with early spring temperatures. The lack of sustained cold in the Northern Hemisphere, including the northern U.S., is forcing the ice to thaw and refreeze more often, making it weaker — and making activities such as snowmobiling and ice fishing a little more risky.
One by one, areas that were perfect for outdoor winter activities in decades past are becoming less of a sure thing. One study of 122 lakes worldwide, using nearly 80 years of lake-ice data, found that the number of ice-free winters has more than tripled since 1978 as global temperatures have reached new heights.
Mainers who enjoy outdoors in winter don’t have to be told that the environment around them is changing. Many Maine lakes have a week or two less of ice time during the winter now than in the recent past. Sebago Lake, the home of one of the state’s premier ice-fishing derbies, used to ice over about 80% of the time; now it only freezes over about half the time, and the derby is often moved off the lake for safety purposes.
It’s not just a problem confined to the winter, either. Lakes that don’t freeze over are more prone to toxic algae blooms, and the warming waters could threaten the state’s cold-water salmonid fishery.
As we’ve already seen in Maine, the small increases in temperature can have outsized impact. Just as rising temperatures have brought ticks to new areas of Maine and pushed the heart of the lobster industry north in recent years, they will shorten the winter season and change when and where Mainers can enjoy their favorite outdoor activities.
Maine will have to adapt to the changes caused by climate change. But we also need to be part of the effort to address rising temperatures so that our way of life is disrupted as little as possible.
Gov. Janet Mills has taken aggressive, thoughtful action on climate change, and President-elect Joe Biden has set even more lofty goals for his administration, including major investments in renewable energy and a goal of ending carbon pollution by 2035.
As a country and a world community, we are behind in addressing the climate crisis. There is hope now that with a new president and a new focus, we can take the steps necessary to make sure robust Maine winters don’t become a thing of the past.