Connecticut maple syrup isn't one of the first things people usually think of when the issue of global warming comes up. But maybe it should be.
Average winter temperatures in southern New England are up by several degrees. Spring is coming earlier. Some experts are predicting climate change could begin to have an impact on our forests — and our sugar maple trees and maple syrup producers — before the end of this century.
The flip side of this coin is technology: our syrup dudes are using improved technology to get lots more sap out of their maples than ever before. And those higher-tech systems are apparently more than compensating for the climate changes, according to experts.
Until about a decade ago, says Wayne Palmer, people who make maple syrup in this state would traditionally start tapping into the trees around President's Day, which falls in the third week of February.
Palmer runs the Winding Brook Sugar House in Hebron and says his family has been making syrup for at least four generations. He doesn't personally use the term 'global warming,' but he is sure things in his woods have been changing.
"Last year, I tapped February 1st," Palmer recalls. Some of his buddies who use a modern vacuum-tapping system to get the sap out of their trees started hooking up their plastic hose lines in mid-January, according to Palmer. "That was unheard of 10 years ago," he says.
Mark Harran, president of the Maple Syrup Producers Association of Connecticut, agrees. "I do believe people are tapping earlier," he says.
The reason is the hydraulics of getting sap from sugar maple trees. The sap doesn't start running unless there are sharp changes in temperature between the cold nights and warmer days; the expansion and contraction in the tree as it freezes and warms and freezes again forces the sap out.
According to climate records, average temperatures across the Northeast have risen more than two degrees Fahrenheit since 1970, and average winter temperatures have increased by about four degrees.
There are global-warming computer models that are predicting the climate of Connecticut and the rest of southern New England could be sort of Virginia-like before the end of this century. And that could mean some significant changes in the sorts of trees that thrive in this part of the country. Trees like the sugar maple might well begin to die out around here, according to some experts.
Chris Martin, Connecticut's state forester, says it's still too early to tell if those alarming kinds of forecasts are accurate as far as our woodlands are concerned. "Trees are slow responders to change," he points out.
"Global warming is a long-term trend which is certainly happening," Harran says, quickly adding that the short-term doesn't look like a major problem. "In 80 years, we might have a problem here."