Biosphere and Climate – New England (BAC-New England) is an institutional initiative started in 2011 by ecologists and researchers Brian Drayton, Ph.D. and Gillian Puttick, Ph.D., within TERC’s Center for School Reform.
The team has worked to develop a climate change education program for New England that:
- Emphasizes biological evidence of climate change
- Links natural phenomena to social and cultural changes in our region
- Coordinates formal and informal educational resources, including schools, nature centers, media outlets, and citizen groups
- Complements existing climate change education efforts in the region.
Climate Science Briefs
Below are briefs on various aspects of climate change ecology in New England.
Science Brief: This brief contains an overview of how New England’s ecosystems are reacting to climate change, and how they are expected to react in the future. Science Brief.pdf
American Lobster: This brief contains an examination of the American lobster and the ways climate change is affecting the species. The American Lobster.pdf
Frosted Elfin: This brief contains an examination of the Frosted Elfin and the ways climate change is affecting the species. Frosted Elfin.pdf
High-bush blueberry: This brief contains an examination of the high-bush blueberry, and the ways climate change is affecting the species. High-bush blueberry.pdf
Moose: This brief contains an examination of the moose, and the ways climate change is affecting the species. Moose.pdf
Changes Beneath the Surface: This brief contains an overview of how climate change is affecting trees, and how the changes that we are seeing may indicate other changes that are not so easy to detect. Changes beneath the surface.pdf
Plant Range Shifts: This brief covers the phenomenon of range shifts in plant species, how and why the happen, and what the implications are. Plant range shift.pdf
Plant Phenology: This brief covers the subject of seasonal life cycle stages (phenology) in plants in New England, and how they pertain to the warming of the global climate. Plant Phenology.pdf
Herptile Overview Brief: This brief contains a basic overview of reptiles and amphibians (or “herptiles”) in New England, and the issues they face as the climate changes. Herptile Overview Brief.pdf
Herptile Range Shift Brief: This brief covers range shifts in reptiles and amphibians, how and why they happen, and what the implications are. Herptile range shift brief.pdf
Insect Range Shifts: This brief covers the phenomenon of range shifts in insect species, how and why they happen, and what the implications are. Insect range shift.pdf
Climate Change Narratives
I’m Jean-Claude Bourrut, and I live in Jamaica Plain. I currently work as an organic farmer at the Natick Community Farm, in Natick. The farm is also an educational place, so we do run educational programs for kids and adults around food, farming nutrition, and food issues. I’m also a professional beekeeper, and I run workshops and classes on beekeeping. I’ve been doing this work in the Boston Area for 22 years.
In my field, you’re working constantly with nature, so at the farm we are totally influenced – almost dictated by what the climate is. It influences planting dates, and right now at the farm, we’re in full maple syruping season, and the timing of tapping the trees, collecting, finishing the season – out of everything at the farm, syruping is the activity most dictated by nature, but really everything I do follows the climate.
On the farm, things have been changing. I worked in Natick 20 years ago for five years, and I went back there four years ago, and between those two times, I’ve seen a lot of changes. For example, the health of the sugar maple trees – I knew those trees pretty well, tapping them year after year starting 20 years ago, and the health of the trees has changed a lot. It’s a species that is pretty sensitive to a number of different factors. Roadside trees have been damaged by salt and compaction, but we also tap a lot of trees that aren’t close to roads, and those are showing more of the environmental impact. Whether it’s climate change, or acid rain, or something else, I don’t know for sure, but overall the health of the trees declined. That was very obvious. It was shocking to me, coming back almost 15 years later, to see those same trees have taken a pretty harsh beating, and I think that in the short run, maple sugaring is an industry that’s going to disappear, in New England at least. They’re saying it’s going to move up to Quebec.
You know I remember having frost in suburbs of Boston in September, that was not necessarily common, but maybe every three or four years, but after that, our main frost was in October. Now sometimes we have one in October, but the main frost is in November, sometimes, even December.
As a beekeeper, I have to pay attention to the flowers that the bees rely on. I think beekeeping leads you into a number of other interests as you discover the fascinating world of honeybees, but one of the things that I look closer at is the blooming time of different species around here, so I take regular walks in the arboretum, and other places all around Boston, looking at bloom times and how it’s changed. I’ve kept track some over the last 20 years, but more seriously in the last five or six years.
I probably have a hundred different species of plants, trees, and shrubs that I keep track of, and there are years where there are tremendous changes, especially in the last few years. In 2009 or 2010, all the blooms were really, really early. More than two or three weeks earlier than usual, and I think it’s a pattern that’s repeating itself. But it’s not just individual years, it’s also over time, in the few species that I’ve been looking at for a longer time – blooming time is inching up earlier and earlier in the season.
Looking at all of this, I often think about my daughter – about what kind of world we’re going to leave for our children. I try to bring her in contact with nature as much as possible. She’s been keeping bees with me for many years now, and she works in the farm in the summer, and she’s very involved and she loves going there. I think it’s important. Also at the farm we have a program for kids, putting them back in contact with nature – it’s a kindergarten program, and kids are outside all the time, shine, or rain, or snow. I think we need more of that, because I think people have lost the connection with nature, and they don’t see the impact, that we have, and what it means.
It’s not something that’s really talked about much. I mean, we mention it once in a while, when we talk about length of the season. That is kind of a bonus for us – those who produce crops and vegetables, because it allows us to start earlier in the season, finish later, grow longer, and so I think a lot of the more commercial growers will get a better income with that. But aside from noticing that the frosts are coming later or the last frost is earlier and earlier, I don’t think there’s much talk. I think Europeans are more aware of those things, and it’s discussed much more, I mean every time I go back to France, it’s striking to see how it is, much more so than here, in the forefront of discussions, you know even in the mainstream media, and politicians talking. I think reaching the mainstream media is going to touch the wider public in a way that small farms like ours can’t.
In the organic farming community, I think that a lot of people are aware of what’s going on, so I’m not sure how effective we can be. At the farm, we have a series of movies that we show on different issues that seem to be effective, but often, I feel like we’re reaching to a public that is already half convinced, if not fully convinced of the problem, and they’re seeking advice on solutions, not information on what’s going on. I think we need to reach a wider audience. Maybe bringing in a well-known speaker would do that.
I think it may be useful to connect more with conventional farmers too, and help get them on board with changing things. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think we would have to demonstrate the ties between chemical ways of farming and climate change. You know, the high usage of energy for food production compared to other societies and cultures.
It’s also hard because I work in a fairly wealthy area of suburbia, and so you know, a lot of people don’t see any contradiction shopping for organic food, driving to the farmer’s market with their SUVs, for example. You know, that’s not a problem for them. To the farm – it’s incredible the number of SUVs that are parked at the farm. In an organic farm! To me, it’s always shocking. I think the awareness has not reached the point where people are going to change their way of life enough. So is it going to continue faster? I’m not a scientist, so I don’t know, but I think it’s not reversing any time soon.
I’ve been living in Jamaica plain since 1992, and gardening there since 1994, but I was born and raised in Maine, so I’ve always been aware of weather in New England. Over that time, I haven’t exactly kept records, but I remember that growing up, it was colder in September, and 2012 was the first year I was biking wearing both shorts and mittens. I remember thinking, “This is weather is confusing!” It wasn’t like spring, or winter, it wasn’t like anything – chaotic.
I remember when I was a teenager in the late 1970s, early 1980s, there was a lot of buzz surrounding acid rain, and forest death in Germany, and that gave me the sense that we’re part of a system, so as I learned about climate change, it fit. It’s obvious that there’s a discernable human impact on the natural world.
There are many aspects of my life that connect me to nature, and to the climate. I bike to and from work pretty much year-round, and I swim outdoors as much as possible. During the growing season I grow food in a community garden. When there’s snow I go cross-country skiing, and when there’s not, I like to go camping. Because of that, the cues the environment sends me are a huge part of my life. When it’s time for strawberry picking, that’s what I need to be doing, and I get really cranky if other responsibilities get in the way. I don’t like things to stand between me and fruit picking. I may not be as enthusiastic about raking yard waste, but when that needs to be done, I have to be doing it.
Everything that’s going on right now with regards to climate change is very distressing to me. I have trouble sleeping at night, I find myself resenting people who refuse to change their behavior, and concerned about people who can’t seem to see what’s going on.
I try to mentally prepare myself for coming changes, like the idea that not long from now, if I want to see certain species I would expect around here, I’ll have to go to Maine. I see the same sort of thing in people I interact with; the other gardeners I see around sometimes will throw out the occasional crack, like, “We’ll be gardening in February next year – see you then!” It’s a joke, but it’s not. If you go to the Jamaica Plain Forum, there are events where they’re talking about being a resilient community, or what we’re doing about food supply.
There’s an air of awareness of the problem in the circles I move in, but when I go visit my sister in New Mexico, it doesn’t feel like the issue has infiltrated into the normal culture there in the same way. My sister’s on the same page as me, but she’s very isolated out there. My dad’s on board too, to a degree, but it seems like people who grew up in the 1950s had a real sense that they were entitled to use the world’s resources however they wanted to. That seems to tie into a sort of stubborn skepticism about environmental issues. My father is a bit skeptical about climate change, but living in Florida, he’s certainly aware of hurricanes and hurricane insurance costs. Although he also pays attention to the water level on the golf course, and has been noticing changes there, he doesn’t actively take an interest.
I feel like the right tools for thinking about climate change, or acting on it, aren’t really available. There are things like this app I downloaded the other day that’s supposed to help with your energy footprint, and it’s just so unhelpful. You’re supposed to enter in how many kilowatts of energy you use every day – how am I supposed to know? Maybe if I had that little home energy audit thing and I spent time running around to all my appliances, or scrutinized my energy company’s readout, but – the apps could be more useful than they are. It’s hard to know how to actually do something.
I think people need to have some kinds of information more available. I pay close attention to the weather, and remember how the weather is, year to year.
I think a lot of people don’t have that awareness. I know a lot of folks, like my aunt, for example, check weather.com, and I think if it had an easy-to-see chart or graph comparing to last year at this time – “It was this, and the monthly average right now is this” – it’d be something that would kinda put it in our faces even more. The media does their exaggeration thing, saying stuff like “hottest days on record,” but I’m not sure that’s really what helps people think about anything over time. For gardeners, it might be useful to have information about the pests from farther south that are going to be moving north, and how to deal with them – taking a stand before they get here.
Overall, though, I think that a lot of efforts on climate change have the effect of preaching to the choir, so to speak. I think about my cousin in Florida, who married into a very Christian area of Florida, and church became a very big part of her life. A lot of her stuff on Facebook in 2012 was about candidates like Rick Santorum, very much in denial about climate change – I think if there’s anybody that it would be important to reach, it would be somebody like her, not the people I work with. So what sort of content would I have to pass on to her that would be palatable? I don’t think it would say “climate.” She cares about animals, so maybe focusing on the effect global warming has on animals would get to her.
I think it’s important, for areas like that, to target people like hunters or fishermen – outdoorsmen who’re observing changes, and are aware of them, and might consider being involved, if it didn’t reek of “granola people.” We need to reach out to the people who aren’t already on board, and do it in a way that doesn’t make them feel uncomfortable.
I live in Winchester, Massachusetts. I’m an avid birder, which takes me to where the birds go, in New England, and then also out into other parts of the country. I bird a lot in Massachusetts – in Ipswich, on the Cape, or on Plum Island, but I’m particularly interested in warblers, so every spring I end up following them to a little island in Maine called Monhegan Island over Memorial Day Weekend. After that, I go out to parts of the US like Lake Erie. I would say the Spring and Fall migrations are the most important parts of the year for birders.
The birding community is interesting, because while there are people you might see from year to year, everybody’s there for the birds, so basically if you’re in a particular place at a particular time, like Monhegan Island in May, everybody who puts on a pair of binoculars is “part of the community.” At that point, when we interact with each other, it’s all about what did you see, and where did you see it. Plum Island is another spot like that. There are some formal groups that you can bird with, but I’m not really part of any of them.
I’ve been birding in New England for around 40 years now, and over that time, I’ve started to notice a few specific changes. First of all, I would always do a trip to Woods Hole in Falmouth around mid-March, and it was always the first time I’d see robins. These days, you see robins all winter long! Another big one is the Carolina Wren – hearing one of those was unusual. You didn’t hear them at all, or only very, very rarely, but now it’s pretty common to see them around. More generally, when I go to Monhegan Island, I’m seeing warblers there that we never saw that far north before.
We’re hearing about this sort of thing more often, too, so it seems unlikely that it’s just a few outliers being more widely reported. As a birder, I’m almost anticipating it now – it used to be you’d never even consider looking for a species from farther south, but now you might say, “well, it could be here!” So when you’re trying to identify a bird, you have to broaden your search. You can’t discount birds because of their historical location, because changes in weather patterns and wind patterns might be bringing them north.
I don’t know if there’s a trend for sure – I don’t know how to think about that. There appears to be more evidence of these things happening, and now it’s not just once in a lifetime you see a bird out of place – it seems more common now.
All of these changes, and the temperature differences which ultimately affect food availability for birds – which has a big impact on where they end up being – my guess is that it’s all climate related, but I don’t know that there’s been enough time yet to really say hard and fast that these changes are climate related. That said, there’s data about green-up – plants opening up earlier in the spring as temperatures rise, and that would indicate food availability for birds, so my own personal view is that it’s due to the changing climate. It’s obvious that something is happening, and the only question is whether it’s human caused. It seems to me that rather than worrying about why the climate is changing, we should worry about what we’re going to do about it.
I think it’s important, in the long run, to base our understanding of this issue on evidence, rather than personal observation. We need to be able to compare what we’re seeing to actual data. I think that part of the problem we’re facing is that people aren’t feeling the evidence for themselves, so they’re rejecting what doesn’t seem right based on their experience. People need to go on more than just “well, you know, two years ago in Boston we had this huge snowstorm, we had ice all winter, nothing’s changing, based on my personal experience.” I think we’ve got to get to the hard data.
Most birders are in agreement that something’s going on, but in the field, which is where I usually interact with other birders, most of the discussions are something along the lines of, “what’s that bird?” rather than climate change. I think that given who birders are, though, they tend to be more environmentally conscious. These people pay attention to environmental issues, and they’ve got a connection to nature, and they drive Priuses.
Personally, when it comes to action, I’m intrigued by the idea of whether you can change a community. One example I found really interesting was the island of Vinalhaven, and its attempts to become carbon neutral. It’s the whole idea of moving beyond the level of driving a Prius instead of an SUV, or changing lightbulbs, and onto a level of taking action that will have a different sort of impact. It gets to the point where nothing that you can do seems big enough, and nothing that’s big enough seems doable. I think changing the scale of the problem might be one way forward. Don’t think of it as being so outrageously huge, and maybe it will seem like something that a community can get together and solve.
I think when it comes down to it, really solving the problem is going to take big policy changes, but that still leaves us with the question of what you can do as an individual. I think that groups like Mass Audubon could help there, with outreach. If somebody said, “here are five ways YOU can help resolve the problem,” and it’s something doable, then I think that might help. How do you contribute, and how does what you’re doing end up really making a difference? I think that’s the question – the line that needs to be drawn.