Mud season, while messy, is typically a harbinger of better days to come after a long Maine winter. It is not supposed to happen in January.
But it has been like mud season for many Maine loggers this relatively warm winter, and that is bad for a business that relies on frozen ground to avoid soil erosion while harvesting wood.
“This year is completely different, it’s almost a 180, we’re in the middle of what seems to be mud season conditions right now, and for the last couple of weeks,” Professional Logging Contractors of Maine Executive Director Dana Doran recently told Maine Public. “A lot of contractors, I’d say the majority of them, have had to shut down for long periods of time.”
According to Maine Public reporter Murray Carpenter, “Doran says many mill yards at both pulp and paper plants and sawmills are virtually empty, at a time of year when they should be brimming with wood.”
It is also another bad sign of the way that climate change is already impacting Maine and its heritage industries.
For anyone who might be thinking that this is just one abnormally mild winter, the data tell a different story. There is a clear warming trend.
Sean Birkel, an assistant professor at the University of Maine and the Maine State Climatologist, explained in an email that the five warmest three-month climatological winters (spanning from December to February) on record in Maine have all occurred since the early 2000s. The five warmest October to December periods have also all occurred since the early 2000s, with the most recent Oct.-Dec. 2022 period being the warmest since 1895.
“So far the temperatures put this winter on track, depending on how the temperatures turn out in the next month and a half, we could be seeing another record or near record,” Birkel told the BDN editorial board this week.
We asked Birkel if the data alarm him.
“Well on a personal level, I grew up in Maine and I’ve seen the winters change. And it has an impact,” Birkel told us, mentioning a noticeably warm October 2022 and an unusual November storm with tropical moisture. “And yeah, it is alarming. It’s a sign that things have changed and they’re going to continue to change.”
In terms of winter climate impacts that have already arrived here in Maine, we often think about shorter and more variable seasons for outdoor activities like ice fishing, snowmobiling and skiing. Those impacts are very real, and have significant implications for Maine’s economy. The impacts also aren’t doom and gloom across the board, with changing growing seasons providing new agricultural opportunities, for example. But here in the Pine Tree State, it’s also important to be conscious — and very concerned — about the serious implications for our trees and the industries dependent on them.
The 2020 report from the Maine Climate Council, “Maine Won’t Wait” made this quite clear.
“Changing climate conditions, particularly more extreme precipitation and declining snowpack from warmer winter seasons, create significant stress in Maine’s forests, which cover 89% of the state and support an important forest industry sector that has at least an $8 billion direct economic impact,” the report said.
It also discussed how Maine forests help meet climate goals by sequestering “over 60 percent of our annual carbon emissions.” That number grows to 75 percent, according to the report, when including “forest growth and durable products.” Sustainable forest management has a significant role to play here.
That means climate change is not only threatening a valuable economic resource, but also a significant climate change-countering resource.
So what can we do about this? A lot, actually. With climate change and its impacts already here, that will require adaptation to adjust longstanding practices with new realities. It will also require more efforts to mitigate additional changes moving forward, principally by reducing the amount of carbon we emit.
It is all easier said than done, but it is possible. And as examples like this January mud season once again demonstrate, it is necessary.