Climate Change Adaptation on Martha’s Vineyard

by Brendan O’Neill, Executive Director

“Having dug up ancient sunlight (fossil fuels) and burned it to create an atmospheric blanket trapping heat, we now need to reduce those emissions to avoid a dire future”.

A recent conference on the subject of climate change impacts in Massachusetts offers some valuable though sobering information about the threats and opportunities we can expect in the years ahead.

Because of the persistence of heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions that we have put into the atmosphere, near-term warming of the climate in Southeast Massachusetts and the off-shore Islands is unavoidable. We are locked into warming on the order of 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit over the next three decades. The high emissions path we are currently on will give Martha’s Vineyard a climate similar to that of the Carolinas in that time frame. Lowering our emissions will still give us a changed climate, but more along the lines of the Chesapeake Bay region.

Extreme heat days could go from the current 10 days per summer to at least 30 per season, and as many as 60 days, depending on our ability to rein in our fossil fuel emissions.

Winter precipitation will be more frequent and intense. There will be 10 to 15 fewer snow cover days per month. For the Vineyard, this means that snow cover will essentially cease.

All of this will bring an extraordinary change for the Island’s ecosystems.

Under both the high and low emission tracks, the changes to our natural habitats will actually be about the same, and these changes will be significant. Increased evaporation will reduce soil moisture, shrink wetlands, and reduce the numbers of tree species like maple, and fish species like native brook trout. Migratory bird species will be particularly hard hit. Drought will also bring increased fire risk and exacerbate water quality problems in our ponds, particularly shallow ponds like the Edgartown Great Pond.

Invasive and pest species will change their range as well, moving northward up to 500 miles (under the current high emissions scenario), posing challenges to our native assemblage of species.

On the shoreline, the warming of the ocean caused by emissions trapping heat in the atmosphere will cause the water to expand, and the resulting rise in base sea-level will cause coastal erosion and inundation of wetlands.

What to do? First, we must commit to reversing the high emissions track we are on. As one speaker said, “Having dug up ancient sunlight (fossil fuels) and burned it to create an atmospheric blanket trapping heat, we now need to reduce those emissions to avoid a dire future”. Why should we do that? Because we hold responsibility: New England is disproportionately responsible for generating the emissions, so we should resolve to target the problem and work creatively to solve it.

Starting immediately, climate change adaptation needs to be a priority land use planning issue driven by three certainties: (1) certain changes are unavoidable, (2) adaptation will be a necessity and will be our joint responsibility, and (3) there will be limits to what we can do to adapt to the coming changes.

“Climate Smart” thinking must therefore become part of every single decision made by our regional and local leadership. The work being done by Island towns and citizens to create a regional Island Plan under the leadership of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s is therefore timely and welcome.

Instead of armoring the coastline against erosion with concrete and stone, a range of “nature-based” solutions must be viewed as the first line of attack. Vulnerable lands need to be left undeveloped instead of constructing costly homes and infrastructure calling for protection in the future. Wetlands and buffer areas must be targeted for conservation, and hardy native species that anchor the soils need to be encouraged and safeguarded. Instead of planning for installation of larger culverts and infrastructure to handle more intense storms, natural filtration areas need to be set aside to handle expanded storm water flow.

Some plant and animal species will be winners, other will be losers. Cold-adapted habitats will be out-competed; species that tolerate disturbance will do well. Coastal habitats will need to be allowed to migrate upland as shorelines recede. Land must be left undeveloped to accommodate that change. Local plant populations must be made more resilient by concerted and aggressive efforts to control invasive species. Managing growth and development is again the key: the best resiliency is found in large, un-fragmented tracts of land.

As one speaker at the climate change conference concluded, “the actors may change but we need to protect the stage, that is, the function and processes occurring in natural areas.”