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Balmy, Snowless Winter Worries Mainers

by: Steve Cartwright    16 January 2007

The unseasonably mild weather Maine has been experiencing is making some people nervous.

"Even the old-timers you talk to will say there is something out of whack. It just very concerning. We're very concerned at the Department of Conservation," commissioner Pat McGowan said. "My first blush of this is, it's not good. There are residual benefits but it's not good when you see frogs on the road, squirrels as active as they are, and birds staying around that used to fly south."

McGowan said he has just watched former Vice President Al Gore's movie on global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth," and it made sense to him. He remembers growing up in Pittsfield, where in 1969 a blizzard dumped 110 inches of snow. In the 1990s, a heavy February snowstorm meant he had to dig down to the door of his Allagash camp.

This month, plenty of Mainers have been visiting places such as Acadia National Park to hike and even ride bicycles as temperatures in early January neared 60 degrees.

It's easy on heating bills and you can leave the overcoat at home, but these fleeting benefits contrast with anticipated financial losses in stalled timber harvesting and almost nonexistent winter recreation, such as skiing, snowmobiling and ice fishing.

McGowan said his department sells timber on public lots and that wood isn't being harvested because the ground is soft. "We depend on the sale of wood to sustain our parks." He said his budget will be "severely impacted." Also, snowmobile registrations are way down and that leaves his agency without income that supports trails. Snowmobiling is a $300 million industry in Maine, he said.

With logging operations on hold in much of the state, there is a potential timber shortage down the road, said McGowan. He wondered what a warm winter would do to the destructive spruce budworm cycle, and he pointed out a hemlock infestation not seen in Maine before has reached Kittery.

"This is amazing. You do think about global warming," said Pat Sirois of the Maine Forest Products Council. Sirois said the warm fall and winter, on the heels of last year's unusually wet and mild weather, is bad news for loggers. Typically, logging operations get into full swing as the ground, rivers and streams start to freeze in October and November. January and February are the busiest months, with improved access over snow and ice, and the break-up starts in March.

This year has been "very difficult," said Sirois, whose organization has 400 members statewide. "I haven't heard anyone saying that they are running out of wood, but as an industry as a whole, inventories are lower than they should be and loggers are having a really hard time."

He had heard from employers who have lost crews because they can't get to their work.

Even if they can work, logging in warm conditions is hard on equipment, and hard on the natural environment. Sirois said loggers are more environmentally aware than years ago and try to protect streams and other fragile areas.

John Lichter, a biology professor at Bowdoin College, said he is uneasy about the radical shifts in the climate.

"I would very much prefer two feet of snow so I could do some snowshoeing," he said.

Several years ago, he was at Duke University in North Carolina when the area received 20 inches of snow, an indication that big changes are taking place.

Lichter explained that this winter, Maine and the nation have been experiencing the effects of El Nino, a phenomenon where major shifts in air circulation occur because of ocean currents and atmospheric conditions. But before you relax and say it's just that El Nino effect, Lichter points out that climatic shifts are becoming more extreme, and this has all the earmarks of global warming. The warm air of the jet stream has moved northward, pushing away the arctic air mass.

"We've had these (changes) for at least 10,000 years, but why is this one so different?" he asked. According to Lichter, Gore got it right in An Inconvenient Truth. "Global warming moving the boundaries. Most scientists would put it that way, too."

On New York's Long Island Sound, the lobsters have died off, ruining the fishery there. He suspects global warming may be part of that story, and if so, what if this happened in Maine waters?

"I personally think there is big cause for concern," Lichter said.

"I've been convinced for 10 years or so that global warming is real. We're still accelerating greenhouse gas emissions."

In environmental courses, where he teaches about global warming, he tries to give students some hope.

"We can do something about this," he said, advising that we curtail car trips, use solar power and stop building huge homes that use lots of finite resources to heat. Lichter drives a hybrid gas-electric car and heats his modest home with wood.

What will 2008 be like? Lichter suggests a more normal weather pattern will prevail but said it's hard to predict. He compared it to trying to forecast what the stock market will do next year.

Tom Tietenberg, who teaches environmental economics at Colby College, said Maine's mild winter is bound to have impacts on the ski industry and the natural environment. At home, he has installed compact fluorescent bulbs and buys "green" electricity from Maine Renewable Energy.

Tietenberg believes "we are at the leading edge of climate change," and we're going to see more changes.

A spokesman for the Maine Snowmobile Association called the season "very discouraging." He said many businesses that depend on snowmobilers are small and family-owned. The most dramatic decline is in snowmobile registrations. Last year's total dropped to 70,000 from the previous year's 100,000 registered machines. This year, the total as of early January is 9,600 registrations.