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New England Without Fall Foliage?

CGS prof’s book to tackle climate change and identity


Massachusetts was one of four New England states that saw record-high nighttime temperatures this summer, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. If the warming trend continues, iconic characteristics of the region, such as fall foliage and maple sugaring, may come under threat, climatologists say. Photo by Ruthanne Reid. Photo below by Katya Horner

Last week, Boston officially embraced autumn and left behind its third warmest summer on record. According to meteorologists, Massachusetts was one of four New England states that set record-high nighttime temperatures this summer. These statistics are a sign, many scientists say, of a warming trend caused by increased carbon emissions and other heat-trapping gases.

All the talk of climate change in recent years led Adam Sweeting, a College of General Studies associate professor of humanities, to ponder the way New Englanders might view themselves in the future, since weather and landscape are inextricably bound up in the region’s identity. What would Vermont without foliage season mean? Gloucester without lobsters? Lakes without ice-fishing shanties? Sweeting has started research on a book that will examine that character threat through the lens of the writers, poets, and painters of New England who have helped capture our collective soul by expressing what they saw, smelled, touched, and heard.

Sweeting is the author of Beneath the Second Sun: A Cultural History of Indian Summer (2003), which explores the ways that Indian summer weather has been portrayed in poetry, folklore, painting, and the popular imagination. In some ways, he says, his current project is an extension of that book. BU Today spoke with him about the New England identity and whether the region’s iconic writers and artists have become de facto historians.

BU Today: How did this project come about?
My background is in literary and cultural studies, but I’m drawing on some recent scientific reports, primarily the Northeast Climate Impacts Assessment report, which came out in 2006 and had a lot of data about what could potentially be happening in New England under various climate change scenarios. I’m looking at whether the conceptions we have of New England are under threat if these scenarios unfold as the models in the report suggest they will. My project will go back and forth in time, looking back at the 19th century and projecting forward to the mid- and late 21st century.

What climate changes might be especially pronounced in New England?
New England is particularly vulnerable. We have this very high seasonal variability, and we’re at the intersection of Atlantic winds and Arctic winds coming down from the northwest. It’s an overlapping zone where a lot of things could happen. What the models in the Northeast Climate Impacts Assessment report suggest is that the New England fall foliage, which we’ve all come to love, is seriously under threat. The red sugar maple may be moving farther north, and we’ll see more oak trees that don’t produce the glorious foliage. The likelihood of more drought in summertime could also lead trees to drop their leaves earlier, perhaps before they’ve turned their beautiful colors. By mid-century, it’s quite possible, and people are already reporting anecdotally, that the foliage will come earlier and earlier. There’s an annual ritual in which the Boston Globe reports that Vermont innkeepers complain that they aren’t able to capitalize on the season the way they used to.

What other parts of the New England character are under threat?
Maple sugaring. Maple sugar runs in late winter and very early spring and depends on a very specific combination of cold temperatures at night and warm temperatures in the daytime. All of the models suggest, and it’s already bearing out, that nighttime temperatures are getting warmer, more so than daytime temperatures. It’s likely we won’t have the precise combination again in the early spring.

The skiing industry. If the high-emissions scenarios unfold, the only place in New England that would have an active ski industry is northern Maine.

Another of the likely results is that trout fishing, which people love to do, is going to be increasingly rare because streams will get warmer and there will be less shade to protect them. Cold-water species like brook trout won’t survive. And that’s something that’s really wrapped up in New England’s sense of place, particularly in the northern part of the region.

Our coastal cities—Bridgeport, Conn., New Haven, Conn., New Bedford, Mass., Boston—face real possibilities of increased flooding. It’s not just rural areas; it’s the industrial areas of New England, too. New Bedford and Gloucester have been built up around the fishing industry, so they’ll get a double whammy.

How accurate is the prediction that by mid-century Boston’s climate will resemble that of Richmond, Va.?
I’ve heard different cities mentioned, but what most people suggest, particularly under the high-emissions scenario, is that midsummer Boston could resemble midsummer in the Maryland–Washington, D.C., area. And the New York City–Tri-state area, some people are saying, could look like what the Carolinas look like now. Even if we take drastic steps, there’s still so much carbon in the atmosphere from past emissions that we’re almost guaranteed to have an increase in temperatures. All we can do is mitigate it.

How are you relating this to New England writers and painters?
What I’m thinking about is our self-identity. New England will no longer look and feel like New England. I’m going back to 19th- and 20th-century constructions of New England identity. One of the things that writers do so well is they can live events for us. Henry David Thoreau, for example, wrote extensively about ice. One of the great moments in Walden is the opening up of the pond. He took meticulous notes on the patches of ice along the Concord River. Much of his sense as a writer was tracking the winter. The winter of 1852 was one of the coldest winters of the 19th century, and he has these beautiful entries about walking around in the snow and thinking about winter and its place in New England. We’re going to lose that connection, I fear.

So the flinty, taciturn, hard-bitten Yankee character might be headed for the dustbin?
That character is a myth. New England in the 19th century was already one of the most industrialized regions in the country, and that figure emerged as a foil. That flinty image of New Englanders probably won’t disappear, but it’s our connection to, say, Thoreau’s winters, that might. Emily Dickinson said without the snow’s tableau, she wouldn’t be able to “see New Englandy,” to quote her. Robert Lowell, the great 20-century poet, wrote about Maine lobster towns. The lobster industry is one that’s really under threat, particularly in southern New England. As the water temperatures rise, the lobsters can’t thrive and they move farther and farther out.

What do you say to people who argue that everything changes, that we never stay the same?
I’m not a scientist and, yes, everything does change, but all of the evidence shows that the rate of change and the climate alterations have increased dramatically in the past century and a half. There will be people who will argue that the New England climate has always fluctuated. When European colonists first arrived in the 17th century, it was in the middle of the so-called Little Ice Age. It was dramatically colder, which I think had something to do with the building up of New England identity around cold and winter. In the 19th century, it began to warm again, but then it began to warm dramatically with the increase of carbon emissions and all the evidence says that’s true. Increasingly, writers of the 19th century, and works like Thoreau’s journals, will be seen as historic artifacts. Emerson wrote that some of his best work involved snow.

You also mentioned painters.
There was a group of painters in the 19th century who flocked to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and they helped define the sense of the fall foliage as a regional icon. It helped to make the White Mountains a great tourist destination.

But I don’t want to be all doom and gloom. What I’m interested in is the meditation between the past and the possible future, and how is it going to affect how we think about the place where we live.

What steps can New Englanders take to reduce emissions and help preserve our identity?
Boston is set up for exactly that kind of effort. We need to get many more people on the Green Line, on the T, on the bus. I walk or take the bus to work and the traffic trying to get across the BU Bridge is just insane. But I think it’s going to take larger systemic efforts, and New Englanders and New England governors have led the way. But it’s a global challenge, and I’m certainly not the first one to say that. We’re in a moment of transition. We can go a couple different ways, depending on the decisions that we all adopt.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

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