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Massachusetts climate change report suggests officials should prepare for warmer. wetter weather

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Patrick Donges/WAMC
A 400 foot section of Route 8 North in the Berkshires town of Clarksburg that was washed away by the waters of the Hoosic River in Hurricane Irene on August 28.

By Patrick Donges


Pittsfield, MA – Tuesday, the Massachusetts Climate Change Adaptation Report was released and filed with the state legislature by the state's Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Mandated by state's Global Warming Solutions Act of 2008, the report lays out what state residents can expect as the climate continues to trend towards warmer global temperatures.

The forecast is not bright; the report predicts that by the end of the century the state will experience an increase in average annual temperature of between five and 10 degrees, several more days of extreme heat in the summer months, and more extreme weather events.

Steve Long, director of government relations at the Massachusetts chapter of The Nature Conservancy, said the report's findings were surprising.

"The forecasts of climate change impacts have been pretty well known. The impacts are well documented and they're already happening in many areas, but I think this report does an excellent job of summarizing them and putting them in context."

The report cites some key areas of concern, notably the potential health effects and the vulnerability of existing infrastructure to damage from extreme weather and rising sea levels. It also divides the state into four, "ecosystem types;" forested, aquatic, coastal and wetland.

For the Berkshires, home to thousands of acres of protected forests and streams, rising temperatures could spell trouble for both forests and their inhabitants; here's Long.

"Increased temperatures will affect the types of trees that are able to survive. Natural cycles will get out of sync, so there will be a decoupling of food source timing in bird migration."

"Birds will arrive expecting to feast on the caterpillars and other insects that are munching on the young leaves, but the leaves will be coming earlier and the insects won't be there."

With more extreme weather also comes the prospect of increased flooding across the region.

Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, or BEAT, said the group is focused on how rising stream levels caused by increased precipitation are affecting both humans and local wildlife, as seen this summer in the wake of tropical storm Irene.

"We're getting a lot of water coming down these streams all at once. Often our culverts and bridges aren't big enough to handle it. If we can make them large enough to handle the large flows of water we're getting, they'll also be accommodating fish and wildlife moving safely under our roads."

"There are culverts that washed out during Irene that had been replaced about six years ago during another storm. We need to spend the money to make our crossings adequate so that we aren't spending it over and over again."

Those types of infrastructure improvements are among the actions suggested in the report to help mitigate the effects of climate change. Long said while the state has gathered a wealth of data, officials across the state should focus on preparing for a warmer, wetter future.

"Local officials and state officials will (need) to do some planning and management relative to climate change. It relates to water supply, it relates to air quality, it relates to human health. There are so many factors that we need a multi-pronged approach."

Planning for climate change is already underway in the Berkshires. The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission held a series of visioning workshops in July for the "Sustainable Berkshires" countywide master plan currently under development.

Amy Kacala, a senior planner with the commission and lead for the master plan, said residents at those meetings outlined several ecological topics, such as, "green business development," as major themes going forward in the planning process.

"We really wanted to place an emphasis on climate change. Out east they have to worry more about sea level rise, out here the primary impacts we're looking at are invasive species, threats on natural habitats from extreme storm events and rising temperatures."

"We've got some unique ecosystems and the projections are that there will be greater stress on those systems."

A community forum on natural and recreational resources, part of the next phase in the planning process, will be scheduled to take place in October.