In conversation with Environmental Scientist and Researcher Dr. Sarah Nelson

Written by Francesca McClimont

As humans grapple with social injustice and political infighting, our planet continues to face its own battle: climate change. By taking our natural environment for granted for too long, we all face an uncertain future. Climate change threatens natural habitats and creates weather patterns that are increasingly erratic, extreme and unpredictable. Now more than ever, we need to listen to the experts and be well informed on the changes that are taking place around us. Dr Sarah Nelson, Director of Research at the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) in the United States, answered our questions on climate change and conservation. Dr Nelson’s scientific scholarship spans more than two decades. Before joining the AMC, she spent 21 years at the University of Maine, most recently directing the Ecology and Environmental Sciences program and serving as associate research professor in the School of Forest Resources.

When we were first contacted by AMC’s PR, the email asked whether America’s bizarre weather patterns over the past winter were “part of real climate change or just a hoax that means nothing for our future?” This strikes me as an odd opening to an article on a scientist and climate change, but it echoes an ongoing debate in the US. Why do you think so many Americans believe that climate change isn’t real, and that it is a hoax that means nothing for our future? Because in the UK, we do find this quite hard to understand.

Yes, so I don’t really want to delve into politics but there are some differences. One of the scientific pieces that I focus a lot on is climate variability, and I think that’s one of the answers – staying out of the political realm – behind why it can be confusing to people to figure out what’s going on and really have a sense of a directional change in climate, so in long term trends. So I was in the state of Maine – which is the very northeastern United States – for 20 years and did a lot of work there, not just related to climate and especially changing winters, but other work. And one of the leading folks in Maine who’s working on climate change would always say, in the state of Maine, which is just one small state, we have more climate variability in across the three degrees of latitude than all of Europe has across its 24 degrees of latitude. So variability is a really big thing where we are: the state of Maine and much of New England has coastline and the ocean, and we go up to some really pretty steep and high elevations, although it’s not like the Alps or the Rocky Mountains. And we see just this really in Maine specifically, and in New Hampshire where I am, this compressed geography, that makes our climate really variable.

Part of what’s happening with climate change is what some climate scientists have dubbed ‘global weirding’. So it’s not just that it’s always warmer, or we’re always having more droughts or more rain. Things are changing in kind of weird ways that make it hard to understand. The state of Texas had that jetstream dropped, the power went out – it was snowing in Texas! This is really unusual. So having snow in Texas makes people question, like “Is it getting warmer? It’s snowing in Texas!” So I think that’s part of the confusion.

Maybe there’s also confusion because we used to refer to things a lot more as global warming, and now it’s climate change. Trump’s made that distinction, he’s like well if we’re calling it something different then it can’t be legitimate because we used to call it global warming. But actually global warming is just one part of climate change, isn’t it? I mean it’s one aspect of it, rising temperatures are a problem that are part of a global phenomenon that encompasses more than just global warming.

Yes that’s a good point as well. So a lot of the work that we’ve done here in the northeast, to look at changing winters – and I am quite sure we get a lot more snow than you. You’re famous for rain, of course, and in New England we’re famous for snow and skiing. So what we did was look at 100 years of data, and we did a trend analysis so you know scientifically and statistically, looking for the pattern across that 100 years – really long term; and that kind of damps out any of those individual weird blips that we might see with one winter that had a lot of snow, and one that maybe didn’t. So, yes, I think it’s that kind of distinction between climate which is the very long term view of what’s happening. We climate scientists talk about 10 to 30 year periods of time, whereas the weather is what you get every day: it might be warmer, colder snowy or wetter than usual but that’s not the long term pattern. So I think you’re right, warming is part of it, variability is part of it… Extreme events we think are probably part of the climate signal as well: so really big rain storms, extreme droughts and we’re seeing a lot more of that here in the northeastern US, as well as around the Great Lakes region.

Building on your point earlier about climate variability, I know you focus more on the US but in what ways do you think the UK and mainland Europe can expect to see its weather patterns change in the next few years, from your research?

Yeah that’s a great question and I have not done global research, so I can’t really speak with any certainty about the UK or Europe, but globally we are seeing climate change around the world. There has been warming in most if not all regions when you’re looking at global climate assessments, and kind of to dig in more, but the IPCC, the International Panel on Climate Change, that’s kind of the authoritative source to look at global patterns. So I would suggest taking a peek there.

Politics aside, do you think the pandemic has been enough of a shake up to cause real change in how both ordinary citizens and governments perceive the urgency of climate change?

That’s a great question. The AMC is a very Recreation and Conservation focused organisation, and in the pandemic we have seen record numbers of people getting outside, walk around finding local trails, driving to places where they can access the outdoors. I think that has been just such a huge response. It’s great for people to get outside and really observe and see what’s going on. So I think that that will help people to think more about the environment in their everyday lives. One of the phrases I like to use and other folks too is environmental health is human health, we’re all connected. So I think the more people get outside, see what’s going on in the world and in the outdoors, really helps.

There have been those sort of short term changes in the amount of emissions of things like carbon dioxide from everyone locking down and not driving as much. Transportation, here in the northeastern US, is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. So we did see those short term dives in rates of emissions. It’s not projected to kind of be a long term decline, we’ll probably go back to some version of normal with people travelling again. Air travel, that’s a big one. But yes, I think it provides a hint that if we do reduce these emission sources like transportation and less air travel. You can look at sort of satellite imagery, and other information that shows that it did have an effect on greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

In what ways can people spend time outdoors but ensure that minimal damage is done, particularly in conservation areas and parks?

This has been a huge topic in so many places in my region and around the country… because of heavier use and seeing places like national parks having gradually increasing, or in some places, steeply increasing usage already, it has sort of compounded on top of it. There are some ways to reduce impacts, specifically in the springtime here which sometimes we call ‘the shoulder season’ ramping up to summer, when historically that’s been our vacation or holiday and places get lots of use. But in the springtime when we are seeing snow melting earlier, or these big heavy rainstorms, it’s important for folks to stay on the trail. Sometimes it can be pretty wet or muddy, so throw on your rain boots and stay right on the trail because if you’re travelling on the sides of trails or trying to go around puddles and wet spots you can trample sensitive vegetation that in some cases is waking up from winter and is at a vulnerable stage. So that’s a big one. Then some of the key principles are lumped under Leave No Trace principles, that have long been important in places like national parks and state and provincial parks. If you bring things with you, ’carry in carry out’ is one of those principles. Bring that with you and take everything with you when you go.

When you mention sensitive vegetation is that what you mean when you say spring is sensitive? The AMC talks about the sensitivity of spring and I was just wondering what exactly you meant by sensitivity in this context. So it’s because things are kind of sleepy, they’re waking up?

They are, yes, and one of the really special things I think about AMC and where we’re located, is we focus on mountains in the northeast so the northern Appalachian Mountains. The mountains here have an Alpine zone, named after the Alps, of course, so it’s at very high elevations, and they typically don’t have forests. If they do, it’s what’s called krummholz: the little kind of bonsai looking trees, but mostly there aren’t big forest trees and vegetation. There’s not much soil out there, and there are plants and some animals that are dependent on the Alpine zone as their habitat. So some folks call them ‘sky islands,’ because they’re sort of their own unique ecosystem. There are plants up there that are really sensitive, so they’re tough, this is kind of a cool paradox. They’re really tough and they’re often called ‘stress tolerators’, because if you think about it, they have to survive the cold winter and a lot of wind at these Alpine sites. They’re exposed, even in the summer to the sun as there’s no shading. So they’re stress tolerators but at the same time when you trample these plants or go off trail it can cause soil erosion. The soils up in these alpine areas are really thin and take thousands of years to develop an inch of soil. So if you’re trampling on a place that’s not on a trail and causing that soil to wash away, that’s hundreds to thousands of years of material that you’re just sending down the mountain next time it rains. So yeah, it’s kind of an interesting ecosystem, it’s really tough, but it’s really fragile.

Misinformation is so damaging. Earlier we’ve spoken about how people don’t believe in climate change, so what are the specific resources that are most credible that you suggest people should refer to?

Sure, and one of them if you’re looking kind of at the global scale is the IPCC that I mentioned before, the International Panel on Climate Change, and they produce reports periodically with the state of the art, up to date science. Those reports have so many scientists working on them. It’s really a consensus report, people from all around the world, working at different scales, putting the information together and looking at the big patterns. So that’s sort of the big global one.

Here in the US we have a national climate assessment that occurs every four to five years, which has a really nice website, and they do the same thing but look specifically at US data, and then they also pull it together by region so you can look at what’s really happening in the Northeast or in the southwest. So those are some good sources. Many of our states here have their own climate science or climate plans, and those are good sources as well so those are all sort of governmental-type sources of information. They primarily rely on government scientists and on folks working in universities all around the world who do this kind of research, so .gov or state websites are good sources for information. .Edu sites will tell you if a source that you’re looking at is coming from a university or another institution, so that’s the key thing: where is the information coming from? It’s digging in and taking an extra minute to figure out where’s the information coming from, and doing your own investigating before you share that information. Figure out how current it is, you certainly wouldn’t want to look at a State of the Climate report from 1972 to see what’s happening nowadays. The information has been updated. Then another key piece is figuring out who is publishing that information. What’s their potential bias? So is it an organisation or a group that has a political motivation or has a fundraising motivation? Where are they coming from when they’re giving you this information? So those pieces are really important to look at as a first cut.

Thanks, that’s really helpful. What’s the most shocking or surprising thing you’ve ever discovered during your research that you don’t think other people are really that aware of when it comes to conservation or climate change?

So a lot of the work that I’ve specifically been involved with has been about changing winters. I have grown up in the northeast and lived in other places, but winter is just a big part of our identity in this part of the world, probably like rain in the UK, right? We had stakeholder panels, so people would meet with us around the region to tell us what they have been seeing in terms of changing winters. People like loggers who harvest forests, maple syrup producers, folks from the ski industry and land trusts… We heard from them, and I think many of us knew from our own experience saw that winters were changing… But when we really did the trend analysis and looked at 100 years of data, we’ve seen that winters have become shorter by about three weeks. To me that’s a big deal. That’s almost a month less of winter. When we look ahead to what projections are for the future through the end of the century, it looks like we’re going to continue to lose winter at a similar rate, which depends on our emissions of carbon dioxide to some extent. But will we still have snow in the month of March – which has always been a really wintery month – that’s a surprise to me that we might not… We may be losing a lot of our snowy winters in the northeast. So I found that pretty surprising and shocking – just the extent of the loss of snow and cold.

That’s also a concern here in Europe as well. I recently read a New York Times article that said because of climate change, the National Park Service ecologists and managers will have to start picking and choosing what to save rather than adopting a mindset of absolute conservation. Have you found this to be the case in your work, doing research for the AMC and in your years as a researcher for the University of Maine?

Yes that article this week had a lot of focus on Acadia National Park. I did a lot of my research and still work with Acadia on some projects. I worked there for about 20 years, not necessarily on climate and vegetation, I did acid rain and Mercury research as well. I know those scientists well that are doing the work in Acadia. The Park Service did change their mission from sort of strict, we draw a line on these places on the ground as a border and say let’s keep everything the same. A number of years ago they moved toward thinking about preserving the function of ecosystems.

So maybe it’s not the exact same species that we’re preserving from year to year over decades but we think about whether we have enough pollinators and overstory trees and the functions of the different species and ecosystems at parks. There’s a lot of work, especially in forests in the Northeast about adaptation so climate is changing, what do we do about it and I think there are so many unknowns about the specifics of that. Foresters will ask, well what trees should I be planting, and people are working on research to try to identify some of that, but it’s not 100%, certainly settled yet. So I guess I would just say the approach that the Park Service is taking make sense. In some ways it’s going to be really tough to preserve exactly what’s been there. Change is something that has always occurred, and we’ve definitely accelerated the rate of change. So some species are going to struggle to catch up and some may not make it.

Since changes have always occurred, do you think that absolute conservation wasn’t a realistic goal in the first place?

That’s a good question, and it might have been, when a lot of the US National Parks (the first one was in 1872) and that was as the Industrial Revolution here was really getting going. So maybe it seemed to make sense… You know the pace of change was much slower. We have really accelerated that, so I’m not sure if it was a realistic goal. Then of course you can look even longer term and think about in this country, especially, who was here prior to European settlement and what kind of changes occurred so yeah, I think there’s a lot wrapped up in that question.

Speaking of who was there before, Native Americans: they’re so tied up in nature and their whole lifestyle is about conservation. Do you think that in the coming years, there’s going to be more importance placed on Native American lands, ownership and conservation? The US does now have its first Native American Cabinet Secretary!

Yes, the leader of the Interior Department, so that includes the Park Service and many other of our land management agencies. Yes, there has definitely been an enhanced focus here in the US, over the past several years at least. So that’s a potentially big piece in the future. And one of the things at AMC that we’re trying to do is to engage everybody in nature and in science, is community science so getting people out in their local areas to observe what’s going on. We have projects using the platform, iNaturalist, which is available worldwide. You can go out and take a picture of a plant or an animal, and it posts to the web and it actually informs our science. So we’re really working toward being more inclusive and getting everyone involved in the science, so that we can all help to understand biodiversity and some of these patterns that are going on all around.

Featured image courtesy of Dr. Sarah Nelson. Images in article courtesy of the Appalachian Mountain on No changes have been made to any of these images.

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