PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Vermont farmer Brian Kemp is used to seeing the pastures at Mountain Meadows Farm grow slower in the hot, late summer, but this year the grass is at a standstill.
That’s “very nerve-wracking” when you’re grazing 600 to 700 cattle, said Kemp, who manages an organic beef farm in Sudbury. Kemp attributes the changing climate to his inconsistency and unpredictable weather.
” “I don’t believe there is any normal anymore,” Kemp stated.
The impacts of climate change have been felt throughout the Northeastern U.S. with rising sea levels, heavy precipitation and storm surges causing flooding and coastal erosion. But this summer has brought another extreme: a severe drought that is making lawns crispy and has farmers begging for steady rain. Heavy, brief rainfall from the odd thunderstorm can tend to evaporate rather than soak into the soil.
Water supplies are low or dry, and many communities are restricting nonessential outdoor water use. Fire departments are combatting more brush fires and crops are growing poorly.
Providence, Rhode Island had less than half an inch of rainfall in the third driest July on record, and Boston had six-tenths of an inch in the fourth driest July on record, according to the National Weather Service office in Norton, Massachusetts. The governor of Rhode Island issued Tuesday a drought advisory for the state, with suggestions to decrease water consumption. There are water restrictions in place for the Hoppin Hill Reservoir at its north end, Massachusetts.
Officials in Maine said drought conditions really began there in 2020, with occasional improvements in areas since. In Auburn, Maine, local firefighters helped a dairy farmer fill a water tank for his cows when his well went too low in late July and temperatures hit 90. About 50 dry wells have been reported to the state since 2021, according to the state’s dry well survey.
The continuing trend toward drier summers in the Northeast can certainly be attributed to the impact of climate change, since warmer temperatures lead to greater evaporation and drying of soils, climate scientist Michael Mann said. But, he said, the dry weather can be punctuated by extreme rainfall events since a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture — when conditions are conducive to rainfall, there’s more of it in short bursts.
Mann stated that there is evidence from Penn State University showing climate change has created a stuck jet stream pattern. This means that the jet stream’s meanders, also known as the air current, can get trapped in one place. It could lead to extreme weather events such as extreme heat or drought at one spot and severe rainfall at another. Mann explained that this pattern has been evident in recent summers with heat and drought in Northeastern and Midwest.
The majority of New England are in drought. A new map was released by the U.S. Drought Monitor on Thursday. It shows parts of Eastern Massachusetts that are not in Cape Cod, and most of Rhode Island and southern Rhode Island, which is now experiencing severe drought.
New England has experienced severe summer droughts before, but experts say it is unusual to have droughts in fairly quick succession since 2016. According to Vandana Rao (director of water policy Massachusetts), Massachusetts was subjected to droughts in 2016, , and 2022,. This is likely because climate change.
“We hope this is maybe one period of peaking of drought and we get back to many more years of normal precipitation,” she said. “But it could just be the beginning of a longer trend.”
Rao and other water experts in New England expect the current drought to last for several more months.
“I think we’re probably going to be in this for a while and it’s going to take a lot,” said Ted Diers, assistant director of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services water division. “What we really are hoping for is a wet fall followed by a very snowy winter to really recharge the aquifers and the groundwater.”
Rhode Island’s principal forest ranger, Ben Arnold, is worried about the drought extending into the fall. This is when more people tend to burn wood, do yard work, and use fireplaces. It also increases the likelihood of forest fires. The fires this summer have been relatively small, but it takes a lot of time and effort to extinguish them because they are burning into the dry ground, Arnold said.
Hay farmer Milan Adams said one of the fields he’s tilling in Exeter, Rhode Island, is powder a foot down. In prior years it rained in the spring. He said that the dryness began in March and April, which was so dry, made him nervous about cutting his first hay.
“The height of the hay was there, but there was no volume to it. From there, we got a little bit of rain in the beginning of May that kind of shot it up,” he said. “We haven’t seen anything since.”
Farmers are fighting more than the drought — inflation is driving up the cost of everything, from diesel and equipment parts to fertilizer and pesticides, Adams added.
“It’s all through the roof right now,” he said. “This is just throwing salt on a wound.”
The yield and quality of hay is down in Vermont too, which means there won’t be as much for cows in the winter, said Vermont Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts. The state has roughly 600 dairy farms, a $2 billion per year industry. Like Adams, Tebbetts said inflation is driving up prices, which will hurt the farmers who will have to buy feed.
Kemp, the president of the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition, is thankful to have supplemental feed from last year, but he knows other farmers who don’t have land to put together a reserve and aren’t well-stocked. The coalition is trying to help farmers evolve and learn new practices. They added “climate-smart farming” to their mission statement in the spring.
“Farming is challenging,” Kemp said, “and it’s becoming even more challenging as climate change takes place.”
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