What Climate Change Means for New England's Maple Trees

Studies show maple trees are more affected by drought than many other species. (Photo: Edward Fielding/Shutterstock)

Imagine a world of pancakes, waffles and French toast with no maple syrup. The thought makes me pout a bit. And it could happen.

Recent studies have shown that rising temperatures and a drier climate are affecting how much sugar maple trees produce. In order to release sap, trees need cold nights and daytime temperatures to rise above freezing, according to Civil Eats. If there are several days in a row where the nights don't dip below freezing, the sap will flow at a slower rate than maple sugar syrup farmers need. Also, the warmer temperatures will cause the trees to bud — diminishing the sap's quality.

A January 2018 study also shows that the hotter, drier climates in Vermont and New Hampshire are affecting young maple trees the most.

"Maples are more effected by drought than many other species," says study author Inés Ibáñez. "They need a moist environment during the whole growing season. Older trees have a deep enough root system that they can withstand stressors better. But we’re going to see the younger maples dying."

University of Vermont researchers also noted that for the past decade the maple sugaring season has decreased by 10 percent. Lead researcher Joshua Rapp made the connection that several years of hot summers led to low sugar content during sugaring season (typically February through March).

In the past 100 years, New Hampshire's maple trees have gone from 3.5 percent sugar in their spring sap to 2 percent sugar in their spring sap. Syrup farmer and retired teacher Martha Carlson is educating adults and school children alike about the danger of a further decline due to climate change.


Adapting to modern times

While the changing climate has slowed down the rate that maple syrup flows from the trees, maple syrup production has actually tripled in the last 15 years.

Many farmers now use vacuum plastic tubing to draw out more sap, and reverse osmosis machines help remove water faster so they can get to the sap easier, reports Civil Eats.

maple syrup tree
Plastic tubing can help extract more sugar from a maple tree than just a tap alone. (Photo: TheAHTOH96/Shutterstock)

While the climate in New England continues to become hotter and drier, Rapp says that many maple trees today can withstand the changing times. Maple trees can live to be 400 years old, and the mature ones can have a well-established root system that can tolerate the hotter weather.

Even though many farmers have changed their methods to handle climate change and the trees are hardy enough to withstand it, there is still fear that it's the beginning of the end of an era.

"There’s not a sense of, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is going to be gone tomorrow," anthropologist Michael Lange told Civil Eats. "But because of the long timescale that sugarmakers are used to thinking in, three generations feels more immediate."