A Maine child born this year will turn 79 — the average life expectancy in the state — sometime in 2100. That child will live to see whether Maine, the U.S. and the world met the challenge of climate change, and if not, what kind of world was left for her.
Most climate models and studies use 2050 and 2100 as the benchmarks for the impacts of climate change. But 2100 is the date where the models produce widely divergent scenarios, depending on whether humanity meaningfully reduces the emissions that are warming the planet.
Rosier scenarios based on global emissions falling depict a world only slightly warmer with seas only a little higher by 2100. More pessimistic models envision a world where ecosystems collapse and billions are displaced by increased temperatures and rising sea levels.
Between those two scenarios is a wide range of possible outcomes for Maine and its people, many of whom are alive today and will live to see 2100.
To understand the consequences of nearterm policy decisions and what the future may hold for a child born today by the end of the century, the Bangor Daily News spoke with more than a dozen experts across a variety of disciplines about the possible impacts of climate change on Maine.
They described more toxic lakes and fewer beaches, exploding populations of ticks and collapsing populations of moose and lobster. They saw a state battered by once-in-a-century storms nearly every year as coastal residents flee inland.
All the experts were quick to acknowledge the limits of any attempt to predict the future. But the basics of climate change — carbon emissions cause the planet to warm — have been known for more than a century. And recent science has done little to change that understanding, except to add urgency. The United Nations recently published a report that said many effects of climate change are already irreversible, and we’re running out of time to dramatically reduce carbon emissions and prevent a more bleak climate future.
Toxic lakes, retreating beaches
A child born today will live in a Maine that’s hotter than the one we know, and has been getting hotter her entire life.
In an intermediate scenario in which we make some emission reductions, by 2100 Mainers will experience two to three weeks a year when the temperature feels 90 degrees or hotter, according to a 2020 climate change report from University of Maine scientists.
Historically, Maine has averaged just one such day a year. If we fail to curtail emissions, a child born today could sweat through nearly two months’ worth.
As other states grapple with the warming climate, a child born today will likely experience more days like the one last month, when Maine was blanketed in haze from wildfires thousands of miles away.
The air that a child breathes as she ages will also likely be thicker with pollen for longer periods of the year, which could lead to more respiratory problems for her, and her children and family. Rates of tick borne diseases, such as Lyme disease, will likely intensify as shorter Maine winters will allow new varieties of the parasite to survive in increasingly northern latitudes.
The lone star tick, for example, is moving north and can inflict patients with a variety of diseases, including one that causes a red meat allergy. Likewise, ticks could leave Maine with far fewer moose in 2100 than it has today, meaning a child born today will be less likely to encounter the state’s most iconic mammal.
In a hotter world, a Mainer born today will undoubtedly want to cool off in the state’s beloved lakes and ponds. But scientists worry that as temperatures rise and rain increases, some of those bodies of water could become toxic due to an increased rate of algal blooms that pose a health hazard to humans and pets. Some of the toxins produced by these blooms can kill dogs in just minutes. Others can harm the human liver, and some scientists believe another can be linked to neurodegenerative diseases like ALS.
Meanwhile, a Mainer in 2100 is likely to have far fewer in-state beach options than we know now, due to sea level rise.
A 4-foot sea level rise, which has a 50 percent chance of happening by 2100 according to a middle-of-the-road estimate, would eliminate between 70 and 97 percent of dry beach area in Maine between York and Waldo Counties. That analysis doesn’t take into account a beach’s ability to move farther inland over time, said Peter Slovinsky, a marine geologist with the Maine Geological Survey. But in many places, such as Old Orchard Beach, there is nowhere for the beaches to move because humans have built to the edge of the sand.
“What we expect to happen in those locations is what’s already happening,” Slovinsky said. “The dry beach is already getting pinched out.”
By 2100, the details of Maine life that many take for granted — like vibrant fall colors and plentiful lobsters — could be less common.
The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans, which may be causing lobster to move further north. That northern migration has been a boon for Maine’s lobster industry in recent years. In 1990, for example, Maine hauled in roughly 30 million pounds of lobster, and by 2016 that peaked at 132 million pounds. But over the same period that Maine’s lobster fishery exploded, lobster populations have collapsed further south, including in Long Island Sound and Rhode Island. The species’ future may lie mostly outside of Maine waters.
Climate change could also dull the bright colors of fall.
Peak autumn foliage moved a week further into the year at Acadia National Park between the 1950s and today, a change that is likely even greater inland, said Stephanie Spera, an assistant professor of geography and the environment at the University of Richmond.
One of the major unknowns in climate change projections is how glaciers will melt. If they become unstable and rapidly collapse in response to rising temperatures, sea level rise could be substantial, if not catastrophic. More gradual melting will mean a smaller, more manageable sea level rise.
A 79-year-old Mainer in 2100 will know which scenario was the accurate one, and if coastal Maine still resembles the one from her youth, she likely will have lived through regular storm surges and flooding that previous generations only experienced once in their lifetimes.
Just one foot of sea level rise could mean that the type of storm surge that hits once every 100 years would be 10 times more frequent, according to Slovinsky.
Even under middle-of-the-road emission reduction scenarios, there is a 67 percent chance that the Maine coast will see between 1.1 and 3 feet of sea level rise by 2100.
“If just a regular nor’easter comes in and you have water that’s a foot or two higher, it’s going to have a devastating impact as opposed to what it does now,” Slovinsky said. “Everything would change in terms of what we consider a 1 percent event. It could become a 25 or 30 or 50 percent event. The chances of that event occurring every single year could increase dramatically.”
By 2100, persistent flooding will have likely changed coastal infrastructure, or led to its abandonment. For a person living in 2100, the experience of strolling down Commercial Street in Portland could be only a memory.
In Portland, one foot of sea level rise is expected to increase nuisance flooding by 10 to 15 fold. Two or more feet and those numbers would become “astronomically higher,” Slovinsky said.
At some point, nuisance flooding is no longer just a nuisance: it could mean that emergency services could not access certain areas with any regularity and maintaining infrastructure and housing would not be worth the cost.
“At some point, and I don’t know what the threshold is, it literally will become unsustainable to try and maintain something in that area because it could be flooded on every high tide,” Slovinsky said.