Maple-Syrup Setback, Breakfast-Table Blowback

, Senior analyst, Climate & Energy | April 16, 2012, 2:39 pm EDT
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Climate change reveals what it’s up to mainly through our weather, but sometimes it waltzes right indoors and sits down at the table, as it did this week when I learned of new threats to the maple-syrup foundation of my young son’s diet.

Nature’s sweet masterpiece

Dear reader, let me start by owning that, while I too value beloved regional icons like maple syrup (what’s not to love?), they are not what gets me out of bed in the morning. Like all of us, I’ve got a finite amount of concern to spread around, and it’s hard for me to pile it here when I know that bigger things hang in the balance. Under the kind of climate change scenarios that could squeeze the maple syrup industry, for example, millions could face displacement from sea-level rise. If these two problems walked into the ER, a triage nurse would have no trouble deciding whom to treat first. That said, maple syrup DOES get my kids out of bed in the morning, and so I’m eyeing the amber bottle contemplatively this week.

Breakfast of choice: any substrate drowned in maple syrup

Like most kids, mine covet sugar in all its forms but, especially for my 2-year old son, its perfect expression is maple syrup. They make “maple milk” with it, dunk breakfast sausage in it, drizzle it on ice cream, and pour thick pools on top of oatmeal which they skim off and ask for more. Nothing this good comes cheap, so I am the miserly rationer of maple goodness. But I’m holding my ground, and my rationing rationale just became iron-clad.

The sticky situation

Lots of us have heard about ongoing warming shifting the suitable climate for maples and other trees farther north, making maple sugaring less viable where it’s currently practiced. These are long-term trends, though, which may make trees more vulnerable to stress along the way, but aren’t expected to kill vast tracts of them any time soon. Comforting, almost. Then this year’s unprecedented March heat wave hit, accelerating spring in multiple ways. Some of the early effects are now being felt, and the maple syrup industry has indeed been hit, with production expected to be well below recent years. (Before you think “stockpile”, note that a Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve has just been established to try to ensure steady supply despite years like this. Call it adaptation.)

Collecting sap in the Adirondacks with a traditional tap. Photo: Sebastien Barre

Like most great works, maple syrup is the product of tension: in this case, between nighttime temperatures that dive below freezing and daytime temperatures that consistently creep above, forcing the tree’s sap to run. From the Great Lakes to Maine and across large areas of Canada, these conditions often persist for about a month, as we transition out of winter and into spring, giving maple syrup producers time to pull in a decent harvest of sap which they then convert to syrup. This tapping season coincided with high March temperatures, though, keeping nighttime lows well above the desired 40 degree daytime highs in spots, and forcing maple trees to begin leafing out – a development that changes the flavor of sap and calls a halt to tapping. For some, the season was cut to a week or two, their harvest along with it. Science tells us these kinds of temperature extremes are likely becoming more common, suggesting trickier times for the maple syrup industry.

Climate sense and sensibility

Back in my metaphorical ER, the triage nurse would have instructed maple syrup to grab a magazine and take a seat between wine grapes and fall foliage while she tries to stabilize more critical patients, like permafrost and its methane belching concern, or the ocean and its acidity problem. Good, rational choices. But at my real-world breakfast table, there’s some interesting psychology at work, and rationality plays only a bit part. I confess I’d rather slog through a conversation about the drowning of the nation of Kiribati than talk about maple syrup scarcity. It’s not that I want things to stay the same, but I would like a few uncomplicated things, like breakfast, to stay that way.

On a related note, late last month the EPA released standards to reduce carbon emissions from new power plants and is now accepting public comments. You might want to chime in for whatever gets you and yours out of bed in the morning.

Posted in: Global Warming, Uncategorized Tags: ,

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