Compiled by Mike Dunphy and Larry Floersch
Since 2000, meteorologist Roger Hill has been forecasting the weather for the listeners of Radio Vermont (WDEV, WLVB, WCVT). He also contracts with Vermont Electric Power Company, the company that provides the backbone for all Vermont electrical utilities, and freelances for local municipalities, schools, outdoor event organizers, and maple sugar makers. In the heat of August, The Bridge spoke with Hill about climate change issues facing Vermont and its possible futures.
The Bridge: Are we doomed? And, if so, what does doom look like?
Roger Hill: If we don’t really make hard policy decisions, we are on a trend that could lead to doom. If folks want to live in the places they live now, a hundred years from now that might not be possible. Vermont could be so changed that it could be very hard to live here.
There are a number of different ways things could go. Probably it will get wetter and then at some point we’ll get drier. The whole interior of the United States in a century or two centuries probably will be a desert resembling present-day Australia. A lot of the areas where we grow the corn and wheat to feed us and to help feed the world will probably be in Canada.
Is Vermont, by its geography, somehow protected from the worst effects of climate change?
Hill: We’re probably sitting in a much better place than people out in California and Arizona and many of the western states, which are undergoing summertime wildfires followed by drought alternating with atmospheric rivers of incredible moisture that come off the Pacific Ocean. So they’re going to switch back and forth from flood to drought. We’re going to stay in that sort of wet, occasionally flooding mode, and probably our winters are going to change toward being wetter, but on the way there we’ll probably have some pretty big snow years and in other years not so much, with a lot of variability.
In a deeper dive into Vermont, most of our towns, our villages, and our roads are along our rivers because of our mill-town history. Those rivers are going to see more “thousand-year” floods. That means houses that are built in floodplains will be taking a lot of infrastructure damage, and at some point there will be a tendency to move away from the rivers and streams.
In addition to the intensification of weather already in Vermont, will there be some completely new phenomena?
Hill: Yes, and this is something that we haven’t really been delving into. What if we have a drought that goes on for two or more years, and we have massive forest fires like the ones out west? Nobody is considering that. The fact is we’re seeing a lot more variability in our weather. The tendency is a generally wetter scenario, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be interspersed with these super dry periods in which very little precipitation falls, whether it’s rain or snow. Just imagine if we had the kind of fires that go on out west with birch trees and the kind of fuel that is really very flammable. That could really be a problem.
Is this an abnormal year so far is it the usual trend?
Hill: I think this year is kind of verifying what a lot of the climate models were showing back a couple years ago to be happening roughly about this time. We’re living in a kind of told-you-so moment when we’re seeing more heat waves and setting new records.
The last time we spoke, during one of those unrelenting deep freezes, you told The Bridge the polar vortex holding the cold air up at the North Pole had weakened and the cold air was spilling down.
Hill: Yes that’s right. That’s also because of the North Atlantic sea surface temperatures and the Gulf Stream and thermohaline circulation, where we have a lot of fresh water being dumped in the North Atlantic Ocean, and it’s messing with the conveyor belts of the ocean currents. Right now the Gulf Stream is slowing, and that slowing Gulf Stream is piling up warm water on the eastern seaboard, especially in New England. At the same time that’s taking place, a lot colder water is coming in off Greenland because of the melting of the ice. So that’s interfering with a lot of natural processes that have set up with the conveyor belts.
So what may happen is we may see periods where very cold winter conditions blow in here. But it’s going to be on a more regional basis rather than on a hemispheric basis. That regional basis might mean that eastern parts of Canada and parts of the northeast United States, including Vermont and northern New England, will be seeing really cold winters from time to time because of the other things that are going on at a regional scale. All of this is kind of dancing around, if you will, over a long-term warming.
How confident are you in your assessments? Do you think this is probably what will happen or is there a chance it may not?
Hill: I’m fairly confident that things are going to get more variable. We’re going to have more extremes. Nothing is calendar-like anymore.
Are we putting too much confidence in solar and wind energy as a solution? Are there other technologies that you see coming out that could have an even greater benefit?
Hill: I can’t speak to all the technologies out there. I can say that we in Vermont have made a lot of progress already through the power grid, I think, and we’re in a good trend. You might say increasingly even we as a country are in a good trend. However, we’re kind of dragging our feet on policies in terms of what the government does. Now that coal is being pushed again, that might be good for a meter of sea level rise. We have to stop putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and the trends are that we are doing so, but we’re pretty late on the train. The train has not quite left the station, but it’s getting ready to leave, and the conductor’s tooting the horn, and we’ve got to jump on the train that will allow us to change our ways in terms of adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
What could Vermonters do on a personal level that would have some kind of positive impact on the situation?
Hill: Probably trying to live more sustainably by eating our own agricultural products rather than constantly shipping in everything. In other words, our land practices, what food is grown, and how we buy food. Because those places where our food is grown now could be starting to lose viability at some point.