Forests are sometimes called the lungs of the earth — they breathe in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and store it in tree trunks until the forest dies or burns. A new study, however, shows that forests devastated by drought may lose their ability to store carbon over a much longer period than previously thought, reducing their role as a bufferMore
A Patriots fan might say that the biggest disaster in New England right now is Tom Brady’s four-game suspension to start the NFL season. But there’s another catastrophe that’s been brewing all summer.
An intense drought has enveloped the region with eastern Massachusetts at the epicenter. It hasn’t warranted the breathless, blow-by-blow coverage of Deflategate, but its repercussions could last a lot longer. Fall foliage season could be short and not as sweet as usual, and if dry weather persists into the winter, ski season could also take a face plant.
Boston just had its driest summer on record with precipitation more than 6.5 inches below average. It also had its hottest August on record, which has helped bake in the dryness.
About a quarter of Massachusetts (as well as 9 percent of New Hampshire) is in extreme drought, one step below the worst kind according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. That’s the first time Massachusetts has reached extreme drought in the 16 years the Drought Monitor has been in existence. The rest of the Bay State is also experiencing some form of drought or abnormal dryness as are all of Connecticut and Rhode Island.
The main cause for the relative lack of rain in New England has been a persistent ridge (sound familiar, Californians?) that’s shunted storms away from the region and helped lock in the heat.
“This persistent dryness combined with the extreme heat has parched the soils and dried the streams up,” Chris Fenimore, a climate scientist at the National Centers for Environmental Information, said.
This year’s drought might spark reminders of 2012’s flash drought that overtook much of the U.S., including the Northeast. The 2012 drought was also kick-started by warmer-than-normal temperatures in late winter. But for New England, it had dissipated by summer.
In comparison, this drought didn’t really get started until summer, but warmer-than-normal temperatures at the hottest time of the year have allowed it to flourish.
“At this point the drought of 2016 has not lasted as long as the drought of 2012. However, this year’s drought has been more intense,” Fenimore said.
Though the drought really intensified this summer, New England has been running a precipitation deficit all year. Many spots have seen just 50 to 75 percent of their normal precipitation for the year-to-date.
[Drought] Much of the region has only observed 50-75% of its normal precipitation for the year pic.twitter.com/eIUybrkFIa
— NWS Boston (@NWSBoston) September 1, 2016
Massachusetts and the rest of southern New England would need up to 9 inches of precipitation over the next month in order to drag the region out of drought.
There’s no relief that large-scale on the horizon, though Fenimore said that a tropical storm or hurricane could quickly erase the rainfall deficit. The best chance for the region was Hermine, but the storm looks likely to stay offshore, only bringing showers and moderate rain to Cape Cod, Rhode Island and parts of southeast Massachusetts.
Farms in the Northeast have already suffered this summer and leaf peepers could be next. In the driest areas, leaves might just turn brown and fall off while in moderate dry areas, the colors could be dialed back a bit from their usual technicolor display. Dry conditions could also expedite the start of foliage season, according to boston.com.
Not all trees are being affected by drought equally, though. Neil Pederson, a tree ring expert at Harvard University who has been tracking the drought closely, said black birch and red maple trees are already showing signs of stress while others could follow if the lack of rain keeps up.
While the drought is extreme in the present-day sense, the bigger picture shows that New England has dealt with longer, more persistent droughts before. In fact, New England has been in a particularly wet period since the 1960s. But multiyear droughts lurk in the tree ring record around New England and could again be an issue for the region in the future.
“The larger context is that this drought falls on a long upward trend in moisture availability over the last few thousand years and a ‘pluvial’ or generally wet conditions since the end of the 1960s,” Pederson said. “We’ve been dry here since July 2015; we are moving into substantially drier conditions. Projections call for an increase in precipitation in the future, but that warming in the summer might overwhelm this increase.”