Global warming affects temperatures, breakfast condiment

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March 27, 2007

12:53 PM

We have all heard enough dire predictions about global warming to expect the consequences at the gas pump or in the heating bill if fossil fuel costs continue to rise in an attempt to reduce high consumption. But have you realized that those consequences may even reach your breakfast table? Pancakes and waffles are potentially at risk for being served solo, as maple syrup producers and their trees struggle to adapt to the warmer winter weather in New England.

p. Producers across Vermont have suffered drastically reduced syrup production in the past few seasons, which, according to scientists, is a symptom of the maple trees not experiencing the normal cold winter season to which they are accustomed. The trees respond to climate cues, which instruct them when to flower, when to drop leaves in the fall and, most importantly for the syrup industry, when to begin spring sap production.

p. To make matters worse, it’s not just the trees that are confused. The producers are struggling to understand the subtle changes in the trees’ rhythms in order to modify their practices. Traditionally, trees were tapped in early March when the sap began to flow and left to collect for up to six weeks. The early sap is widely considered the higher quality, so there is a downside to missing the start of the season, but it is also dangerous to too soon. The trees can only handle a tap for so long before bacteria invade and make the sap unusable.

p. Barrett Rock, a professor of natural resources at the University of New Hampshire, talked to the New York Times about the difficulties of adapting syrup production to a changing environment.

p. “It’s a real conundrum the sugar producers face,” Rock said. “Do I tap early to catch the early sap flow, or do I wait until the regular season and maybe not get the highest quality syrup, but the tap flow remains open until the first buds on trees in April?”

p. The warming trends of the past half-century correlate with an overall trend of declining syrup production in Vermont in the past 40 years. There have been good years with cold snaps and bad years without, but the trend does not look good for Vermont. The state has pride and tourist money invested in the maple syrup industry, from family farms to festivals. Now, instead of Vermont producing 80 percent of the world’s maple syrup in New England A they did a half century ago, our Canadian neighbors to the north have taken over, leaving the US with only about 20 percent of the market.

p. Many scientists and producers believe that this shift in production is aligned with temperature increases. Canada’s climate is becoming what Vermont’s used to be, and the maple trees are responding accordingly. Dr. Tim Perkins, from the University of Vermont’s Maple Research Center, told the Times that global climate change will have dire consequences to Vermont’s maple syrup industry.

p. “One hundred to 200 years from now there may be very few maples [in Vermont], mainly oak, hickory and pine. There are projections that say over about 110 years our climate will be similar to that of Virginia,” Perkins said.

p. Burr Morse, whose family has been making syrup for generations, told the Times that he has seen the trees starting to produce sap early for the past decade. He is still producing, but his yields have declined from 1,000 gallons of syrup to only 700.

p. “How many winters are we going to go with Decembers turning into short-sleeve weather before the maple trees say, ‘I don’t like it here any more?’” Morse said.

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