Maple SOS: How to save our syrup
Climate change is playing economic havoc on an iconic New Hampshire industry
Since before my children can remember, our family has engaged in a certain springtime ritual as authentic as New Hampshire, and older still.
Sometime after Valentine’s Days, as the days are getting longer and the temperatures start to rise, we gather up our dented metal pails and spiles from the garage, rinse them off, and ready ourselves for our first, and favorite, harvest of the year. With hammer and drill, we bore a pair of holes two inches deep into each one of our stately maple trees out back, insert the spiles (or taps), and hang our pails – just like our forebears did for many generations.
Then the magic starts. Under warming skies and my children’s watchful eyes, the sap begins to flow down the taps and kerplunk into the pails. As the pails fill up, we carefully strain their contents into larger buckets, load them on our wagon tightly sealed, and wheel them down the road to our neighbor’s vat.
Once the vat is nearly full from our local maple grove, we join our friendly neighbor as he fires up his evaporator and boils the watery sap for hours on end. Finally, out of the fog of steamy sweetness, we receive our reward: pure New Hampshire maple syrup. A perfect pancake topper. A scrumptious sign of spring.
But this year was different. After prolonged warmth at the start of winter, temperatures remained low in the latter weeks until a sudden jump brought early budding on the trees and cut the maple season short in the southern tier. Painfully short, from our kids’ perspective – not to mention our state’s several hundred maple farmers and our rural economy.
In fact, in low-lying areas of southern New Hampshire, the sudden jump from frozen days and nights to outright thaw cut the maple season down from six weeks or more to a single week in March, according to a local maple farmer we visited. It was too short for us and our neighbor in Nashua, to our family’s dismay. Even established producers in the area, whose suction tubing technology allows them to extract more sap through intermittent weather, reported half the syrup output of a “typical” year – if such a thing remains.
Indeed, while this may have been the first one-week harvest our state has ever seen in the many hundred years since Native Americans invented maple syrup and shared it with our forebears, it was hardly the only downturn. According to the latest data from the USDA and NH Maple Grower’s Association, last year’s season saw an 18 percent decline in maple syrup production compared to the year before and a 33 percent decline since the recent high of 2016. That means 42,000 fewer gallons of the sweet stuff, even as the number of individual taps remained the same at around 530,000.
What is driving our maple mishap in New Hampshire? According to researchers who study maple trees across the region, the culprit is climate change. As humans emit more greenhouse gases (GHG) by burning fossil fuels, the blanket that is Earth’s atmosphere thickens and more of the sun’s rays are absorbed by land and sea. Here in New Hampshire, the rate of GHG emissions is 15 million metric tons per year – equivalent to 375,000 fully loaded tractor-trailer trucks injected into our atmosphere, mostly in the form of carbon dioxide.
Once there, it takes between 300 and 1,000 years for CO2 to disintegrate, meaning what we do today will affect not just our children and grandchildren but many generations of people – and maple trees – to come. Already, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is 417 parts per million, according to NASA, the highest rate since human life began.
In New Hampshire, those fossil fuel emissions have driven average surface temperatures up by 2.3ºF in summer and fully 6.0ºF in winter since 1970, according to the latest data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The disproportionate rise in winter temperatures has to do with a marked decline in snow cover already evident in winter, which means less sunlight is reflected back into the atmosphere and more is absorbed into the earth – one of the many negative feedback loops that threaten to accelerate heating still further.
As a result, the optimal climate for maple syrup production is expected to shift north some 250 miles from the 43rd Parallel in southern New Hampshire to the 48th Parallel north of Quebec City by 2100, according to peer-reviewed research from Dartmouth College, the US Geological Survey, and other institutions. That could spell the end of maple syrup in New Hampshire.
And it’s not just the maples and our $250 million maple sugaring industry that are threatened by global heating in the Granite State. Researchers at UNH have found that higher winter temps are changing snow to rain, with total snowfall projected to drop by 50 percent this century. That means just one out of seven ski areas in the region will likely be in business by the year 2100 when my kids reach old age – a huge loss for recreation and our state’s $500 million skiing industry. Many ski areas, like Temple Mountain where I learned to ski as a boy, have already closed their doors for good.
The same goes for New Hampshire’s iconic moose population, which has already been cut in half to around 3,500 moose over the past 20 years, according to researchers at UNH and NH Fish and Game. If current trends continue, New Hampshire could lose our entire moose population, as warming winters make them susceptible to ticks and other parasites. Like the moose, we humans have seen a doubling of tick-borne Lyme disease cases reported to the CDC over the past five years – not to mention the hundreds of Granite Staters who die prematurely every year from air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels.
If all these stats put a sour taste in your mouth, consider the bright side: because global warming is caused by us humans, we can solve it too by cutting our greenhouse gas emissions without compromising our quality of life. Rather than sending over $5.5 billion of our hard-earned money out of state every year to import fossil fuels, we can harness our own homegrown renewables to power a healthy future while spurring billions of dollars in new investment and adding thousands of good-paying local jobs.
All that’s needed to begin with is for New Hampshire’s governor and legislative majority to follow the people’s lead by embracing climate science and declaring our state open for business in solving the climate crisis. Indeed, the latest survey data from 2021 reveal nearly three-quarters of Granite Staters recognize global warming is happening and is harming plants and animals, and fully eight in 10 want stronger government incentives for climate action.
In Concord, action starts with setting meaningful goals for zero-carbon electricity from offshore wind and solar; removing the artificial net metering cap that prevents businesses from generating their own power at scale; and investing in energy efficiency and beneficial electrification of heating and transportation. For too long, legislation to do just that has languished in Concord while energy prices soar and our neighboring states reap the rewards of a rapidly expanding clean energy economy.
For syrup’s sake, I hope our politicians will finally sweeten up on sustainability before it’s too late.
Dan Weeks of Nashua works on climate solutions at ReVision Energy.