Far from the Ivory Tower: Global Warming Research in the Gulf of Maine

“What was once a startling observation among our team of ecosystem modelers is now common knowledge: over the course of a decade, the Gulf of Maine warmed faster than 99% of the global ocean.” Gulf of Maine Research Institute

Let’s connect the dots.

It is an observable scientific fact that the Gulf of Maine is warming rapidly, at a rate that is greater than virtually any other part of the earth’s ocean. 

Why is that so? According to researchers at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI), there are “three essential factors:” (1) manmade global warming; (2) glacial melting in the Arctic and Greenland; and (3) changing ocean circulation.

These factors are interrelated. Much of the heat generated by global warming finds it way into the ocean and increases its temperatures. In addition, the melting glaciers add fresh water to the north Atlantic, which changes its circulation patterns. There are complicated scientific explanations for this process, but it was ordinary people, particularly those who fish Maine’s waters, who alerted the scientists five or six years ago that they suddenly were catching a lot of species that had traditionally lived far to the south. 

This combination of real-world observations by working people whose livelihoods are at stake and a large and growing body of scientific evidence flies in the face of the popular image of scientists as out-of-touch, ivory-tower academics. It should make the climate-change skeptics – in Congress, in the soundproof phone booth at EPA headquarters, and in the White House – take notice. But, of course, it won’t. Nor is it likely to sway the corporate contaminators who have long known the truth. Like the cigarette companies before them, they have their own facts and their own scientists who continue to insist that there’s no consensus, and so we shouldn’t act until we know more.

One other thing we do know, say GMRI’s scientists, is that Maine’s sea levels are rising 3-4 times faster than the global average. They are rising because the ocean water is warming and the glacial ice is melting. These are observable facts, not opinions, and you wonder how often they have to be repeated before they sink into Congressional brains.

Yet the scientists remain optimistic, and one reason is that the rapid changes have made the Gulf is a kind of canary in the coalmine. We know what’s coming, the scientists say, and if we can figure out how to deal with it, we can create solutions that have global benefits. 

But we don’t have much time. I asked Bern Sweeney, an expert on fresh water and the retired president of Stroud Water Research Center(SWRC)about the impact of the changes on fresh water. After going through a litany that included redistribution of rainwater, change in the frequency and magnitude of storms, sea level rises, etc., he said, “To me, the biggest fear is the rate at which these changes are occurring, which are much faster than many species can evolve adaptations to. 

I still remember a field trip that Ruth Patrick(the eminent freshwater scientist) took our stream ecology class on a Sunday morning way back in 1973,” Sweeney continued. “We went to a reach on the Lehigh River that was seriously polluted with coal mine drainage and had a very acidic pH of 3 (norm is 7), and we found nothing macroscopic (insects, fish) alive. Nothing. We then drove directly to the New Jersey Pine Barrens and sampled streams where the pH was also 3 – and we found macroinverebrate and fish species in great abundance. Dr. Patrick turned to us on the banks of the stream and said, ‘Notice, class, that species can adapt to almost any condition . . . if you give them enough time.’ 

“Class over! What makes me so nervous about the changes that are happening with rapid climate change is less where we are going than the rate we are going there.”

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Republican politicians in Washington are entitled to their opinions. But by ignoring the findings of scientists and the observations of fishermen, they are inventing their own facts. Since a majority of Republicans now reject evolution(it’s only a theory, after all), perhaps their representatives in Congress believe that, unlike the bugs and fish swimming in Pine Barrens streams, humans don’t need to adapt.

Fortunately, scientists at places like GMRI and SWRC are working hard on solutions to the problems global warming is causing. Unfortunately, much of their funding depends on Congress.

James G. Blaine

About James G. Blaine

Most of us undervalue what seem our tiny contributions to our communities and the world. As a result, we feel powerless, even victimized. But, like the butterfly effect in science, the lives we lead with our families, in our communities, and at work – all the so-called little things we do – collectively change the world. As I grow older, my ambition grows more modest but not less important: to participate fully and to contribute what I can. That’s my goal with this blog.