A spring heat wave in Maine
Eagles and climate change in a small town
By Rick Holmes
May 26, 2017
Georgetown, Maine – It got hot up here last week, especially for this time of year. Here on the coast of Maine, people aren’t used to temperatures in the 90s while daffodils are still blooming.
Temperature records were being broken up and down the east coast. Officials warned of an “air quality emergency,” telling people to stay indoors and avoid strenuous activity, especially if they are elderly or have respiratory problems.
Air quality emergencies are for cities, I told myself, not rural islands like Georgetown. Besides, I refuse to consider myself elderly, and I’d taken my allergy meds. So I went about my strenuous activity, clearing out a friend’s house, until I couldn’t stop coughing.
I took a break to catch my breath and sat on the porch, thinking about weather and climate. Suddenly a bald eagle flew over me, almost close enough to touch. It was a thing of beauty.
Thirty years ago, when I first started coming to this stretch of rocky coastline, there were no bald eagles to be seen. Now it’s almost an everyday experience here along the Kennebec River.
For that we can thank Rachel Carson, a marine biologist, nature writer, journalist and one of the mothers of modern environmentalism.
Carson owned a home near here, just a mile or two away, as the eagle flies. She loved watching the tiny ecosystems in the tidal pools among the rocks, small worlds that appear and disappear every 12 hours. She studied the birds, fish and wildlife, in the coastal estuaries. She saw that the wildlife was in decline, that there was silence where there used to be birdsong. Her research pointed to a culprit: powerful pesticides sprayed over the landscape, especially DDT, which scientists have since shown makes the eggshells of wild birds thinner and more vulnerable.
Carson’s 1962 book on the subject, “Silent Spring,” became a bestseller. It inspired a fierce debate over science, health and regulation. In 1972, Congress banned DDT.
That year, biologists could only account for 29 breeding pairs of bald eagles in Maine, and just eight eaglets. It was the same across the country. The national symbol was facing extinction.
But after DDT was banned, the bald eagles bounced back. In 2008, a Maine wildlife agency counted at least 477 mating pairs, producing 300 fledglings a year. Bald eagles have been off the endangered species list for a decade.
Science, activism and the eagles won that fight, overcoming fierce resistance from agricultural and chemical interests, who tried to dismiss Carson as a quack. Truth be told, mosquitoes were big winners too. Here in Georgetown, mosquitoes rule.
I’ve also been coming here long enough to witness the warming of the Atlantic Ocean. Swimming here has always been more of an ordeal than a relief; you have to get numb before you can have fun. But my annual icy plunge has gotten easier as the water has gotten warmer. The Gulf of Maine has gotten 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer just over the last 10 years. Its waters are heating up faster than 99.8 percent of the earth’s oceans.
That affects fishing, which is a big part of Georgetown’s small economy. Suddenly
warmer, more acidic water can play havoc with lobsters and soft-shell clams.
Rising waters threaten the island’s modest road system, which includes more than a dozen low-lying stretches that could be wiped out by a storm surge at high tide. A well-timed nor’easter could leave hundreds of people stranded and much of the island cut off, including the fishing village of Five Islands, and the state park that is the main tourist draw.
Mainers tend to be practical. When you live on a rocky spit on the edge of the ocean, you learn to pay attention to the wind and the tides. When you live in a place where a winter storm can be deadly, there’s nothing academic about weather and climate.
“Climate change is a math problem, not a philosophical or scientific debate,” a committee of Georgetown volunteers wrote in their report on climate change adaptation. They aren’t arguing over who to blame for global warming. They aren’t waiting for Washington to fix it. They are just recognizing the changes happening before their eyes, and preparing for the what may be ahead. One project on their list: enlarging the culverts under roadways so they handle the larger storms scientists predict.
Georgetown is a small town with a big stake in the state of the climate. But the stakes are high for all of us, and coping with climate change is a taller order than saving the bald eagle. To which the practical Mainer might say: So stop arguing and get to work.