Opportunities for Action: An Evolving Plan for the Future of the Lake Champlain Basin

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Effects of a Changing Climate on the Lake Champlain Ecosystem

About This Chapter

The Goal

Identify potential changes in climate and develop appropriate adaptation strategies to minimize adverse impacts on Lake Champlain’s ecosystem and its natural, heritage, and socioeconomic resources.


Glacial history of Champlain Lowlands

Large-scale changes in environmental conditions are not new for the Lake Champlain Basin. Less than 15,000 years ago much of the Adirondacks and Green Mountains were covered by ice more than a mile thick, and less than 10,000 years ago, the Champlain Valley contained the Champlain Sea, a salt-water extension of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. When viewed in geological time, the natural ecosystems of this region are relatively young. While our regional ecosystems have been shaped by incremental environmental changes of the last 15,000 years, the effects of global climate change during the last several decades are greater than at any other time in the period of record documented to date. Much of this change is driven by increasing levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases associated with fossil fuel use and by land-use changes attributed to increasing global human impact and economic activity (IPCC 2007).

Climate data collected within the Lake Champlain Basin provide strong evidence that accelerated climate changes have occurred here for decades. Many of these changes are irreversible in the time scale of human lives. Resource managers must plan for ongoing changes and take action to minimize changes that are likely to occur in the future. In particular, resource management strategies must adapt to changing climate and work to ensure that public investments in Lake stewardship remain effective. The following trends have already been recognized within the Basin and are almost certain to continue.

  • The average annual air temperature in the region increased by 2.1° F (1.2° C) from 1976 to 2005 (Stager and Thill 2010).
  • The number of days of annual ice cover on Lake Champlain has decreased. The date that freeze-up occurs on the Lake is about two weeks later than it was in the early 1800s, and the Lake has not frozen at all more often in recent decades. There were only three times in the 1800s that the Main Lake did not freeze over; it has frozen over in fewer than half of the winters since 1975 (Stager and Thill 2010). An extended period of open water during winter increases water loss by evaporation and produces local lake-effect snow. Ice cover also provides protection for some species and helps to moderate water temperature.

Lake Champlain Freeze-up Dates

  • More winter precipitation now falls as rain instead of snow, which decreases the spring Lake and ground-water levels needed to maintain wetlands that support spring spawning of some fish and many amphibians (Stager and Thill 2010).
  • Since 1976, total annual precipitation has increased about 3 inches over the previous 80 years. Recent climate data also indicate that more summer rain falls during intense storms, which can cause flash floods in rivers and streams, thereby increasing nutrient and contaminant inputs to Lake Champlain from erosion and from municipal combined sewer overflows (Stager and Thill 2010).
  • Fish community structure has changed in many parts of North America because of decreased spawning and recruitment success of cold-water fishes, such as salmon and trout, and cool-water fishes, such as walleye and northern pike. Simultaneously, populations of warm-water species, such as bass and the invasive white perch, have increased. Some of these prey on juveniles of the cold-water species. Similar trends are apparent in Lake Champlain (Casselman 2010).
  • Lake surface temperatures have increased throughout the northeastern United States and Great Lakes. This can contribute to intense and potentially toxic algal blooms. It may also result in longer periods of summer stratification and increased risk of low benthic oxygen levels (UCS 2006; Kling et al. 2003).

Climate change analyses for both the northeastern United States and the Great Lakes highlight trends that will have a significant impact on our aquatic ecosystems and indicate that these changes are already occurring. These analyses provide specific predictions for “high carbon emission” scenarios (if there is a continuation of the current emission trends) and “low carbon emission” scenarios (if significant economic, social, and political changes result in rapid and sustained reductions in carbon emissions). Some predicted outcomes based on these two scenarios are provided in the table below.

 High Emissions (carbon status quo)Low Emissions (significant carbon reductions)
Number of snow-covered days each winter season by 2100 (UCS 2006) 50% reduction 25% reduction
Low-flow conditions in local rivers and streams by 2100 (UCS 2006) Begin several weeks earlier and last several weeks longer in the fall Last about two weeks longer in the fall
Average air temperature increase from 2010 to 2099 (Stager and Thill 2010) 6-11° F 1-6° F
By about year 2070, our local climate in Lake Champlain will feel like years 1960-1990 climate in (UCS 2006): Northern Virginia Pennsylvania


Lake Champlain Basin Climate Change Projections

Although there are no large cities in the Lake Champlain Basin, it is worth noting that climate changes in large cities in the northeastern United States will likely be even more extreme. Some major US cities are expected to average twenty to thirty days each summer with temperatures over 100° F by 2100 (UCS 2006). These heat waves would increase regional demand for electricity, which could affect the Lake Champlain region. Higher temperatures could result in both additional economic opportunity and increasing environmental pressures as people visit the Lake Champlain region to escape the heat in warmer urban areas.

The economic, social, and political choices that are made, both locally and globally, in the coming years will determine whether the climate of the Lake Champlain Basin will more closely resemble those of Pennsylvania or northern Virginia 60 years from now. Predicted climate change outcomes based on published emission scenarios describe a compelling need for policies targeted at reducing regional and global emissions of greenhouse gases. Responsible stewardship of the Lake Champlain Basin requires management and policy planning to address likely outcomes of each of the different future scenarios in order to mitigate increasing environmental pressures and protect Lake water quality and ecosystem integrity.

Predicted climatic changes will continue to affect the regional physical infrastructure, particularly transportation and public works. The governmental agencies involved need to research and adopt new standards to accommodate increases in storm events and subsequent tributary flows and impacts to roads, bridges, and culverts. Increased storm flows will affect wastewater treatment plants that are not disconnected from stormwater systems. Designs for aquatic organism passageways and flood control systems must be informed by these predicted changes.

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Role of the LCBP in Addressing Climate Change in the Lake Champlain Basin

The LCBP acknowledges that many organizations are working locally and globally to implement carbon emission reduction programs to slow predicted impacts on global climate. The LCBP will primarily work with partners and stakeholders to adapt to a changing climate in the Lake Champlain Basin. These climate-change tasks are highlighted in the tables below, and are cross-referenced in relevant Opportunities for Action (OFA) chapters.

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Casselman, J. 2010. Effects of a changing climate on freshwater fish and fisheries: Driving environmental factors and shifting baselines - what to expect, how to adapt. Presented at the Lake Champlain 2010 Conference, 7-8 June, Burlington, Vermont.

IPCC. 2007. Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, Pachauri, R.K and A. Reisinger, eds.]. Geneva: IPCC.

Kling, G.W., K. Hayhoe, L.B. Johnson, J.J. Magnuson, S. Polasky, S.K. Robinson, B.J. Shuter, M.M. Wander, D.J. Wuebbles, D.R. Zak, R.L. Lindroth, S.C. Moser, and M.L. Wilson. 2003. Confronting Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region: Impacts on our Communities and Ecosystems. Cambridge, Mass: Union of Concerned Scientists and Washington, DC: Ecological Society of America.

Stager, C. and M. Thill. 2010. Climate Change in the Lake Champlain Basin: What natural resource managers can expect and do. Keene Valley, NY and Montpelier, VT: The Nature Conservancy.

UCS. 2006. The Changing Northeast Climate: Our choices, our legacy. Cambridge, Mass: Union of Concerned Scientists.

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Additional Reading

Jenkins, J. 2010. Climate Change in the Adirondacks: The path to sustainability. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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Chapter Objectives

  • Examine appropriate climate change scenarios for the Lake Champlain Basin.
  • Adjust management strategies as needed to reflect predictions from climate change scenarios.
  • Develop adaptation strategies to minimize adverse ecological outcomes.
  • Expand public education programs to improve climate change literacy.

Associated Actions / Tasks

Click Expand Icon Next to each Action to see the associated Tasks

  • Completed Completed Task
  • Active Active Task
  • Inactive Inactive Task

Expand 3.1) Enhance educator and student learning about watershed issues.

Associated Tasks ID # Lead Partners Updated Status
Incorporate Project WET activities and outdoor water-quality monitoring training into the CBEI and school district professional development trainings for teachers. View Task Comments 3.1.17 Vermont 11-09-11 Active

Expand 3.3) Provide hands-on citizen action opportunities to improve the watershed and change behaviors that contribute to pollution.

Associated Tasks ID # Lead Partners Updated Status
Coordinate 3 workshops to encourage communities to participate in the Climate Smart Communities programs to reduce water and energy consumption and reduce waste generation by 2012. View Task Comments 3.3.3 LCBP Inactive

Expand 4.8) Estimate how climate change is altering the delivery of phosphorus to Lake Champlain and how it necessitates changes in implementation strategies.

Associated Tasks ID # Lead Partners Updated Status
Create a Climate Change Subcommittee of the TAC to focus on climate change scenarios and investigate implementation strategies that can minimize the effect of changes on phosphorus loading by 2011. View Task Comments 4.8.1 LCBP 09-10-14 Active
Support efforts by NWS and NOAA to update the rainfall atlas for the northeastern states. View Task Comments 4.8.2 LCBP 07-02-13 Active
Synthesize the best available information on the likely impact of climate change on phosphorus loading by 2012. View Task Comments 4.8.3 LCBP Inactive
Recommend adjustments needed in management practices to effectively respond to climate change by 2012. View Task Comments 4.8.4 LCBP 12-13-13 Active
Assess the effect of climate change on surface water hydrology and sediments and nutrients export at the level of the Pike River Basin. View Task Comments 4.8.5 Québec 05-29-14 Completed
Develop appropriate strategies for coping with projected changes in precipitation and runoff in collaboration with other partners within the Basin. (USGS, Cornell University, UVM, NOAA, USACE, and others). View Task Comments 4.8.6 New York, Québec, USDA-NRCS, USEPA, Vermont 03-13-14 Active
Compare current 10-year, 25-year, and 100-year design storms to recent climate-change driven precipitation projections in order to better prepare for changing phosphorus loads to Lake Champlain due to rain events. View Task Comments 4.8.7 Vermont Inactive

Expand 5.2) Provide education and outreach to encourage homeowners, industries, health care facilities, businesses, governmental agencies, and public institutions to prevent pollution and recycle by 2015.

Associated Tasks ID # Lead Partners Updated Status
Promote and distribute “Planning for a Sustainable Future” to local governments, with emphasis on the sections “Solid Waste Generation and Recycling” and “Protecting Water Quality and Ensuring Future Supply.” View Task Comments 5.2.6 USEPA 05-16-14 Active
Continue to annually promote best management practices related to toxin use reduction programs and energy conservation by implementing the QC MDDEP’s 2006-2012 Climate Change Action Plan at and the Agence de l’efficacité énergétique du Québec. View Task Comments 5.2.14 Québec 05-28-14 Active

Expand 6.5) Conserve important wildlife corridors associated with riparian habitats.

Associated Tasks ID # Lead Partners Updated Status
Work with partners in the State Wildlife Grant-funded “Staying Connected in the Northern Appalachians” to maintain, enhance, and restore habitat connectivity in the Adirondack/Green Mountain corridor for forest-dwelling species of concern. View Task Comments 6.5.4 New York, Vermont Inactive

Expand 6.6) Restore native fish species and enhance Lake Champlain Basin fisheries.

Associated Tasks ID # Lead Partners Updated Status
Support at least 1 research project on the effects of climate change on the relative extent of cold- and warm-water fisheries in Lake Champlain (i.e., distribution and population viability of cold- and warm-water fisheries) by 2012. View Task Comments 6.6.3 LCBP 09-10-14 Active

Expand 6.11) Use biological indicators to monitor change in the Lake Champlain Ecosystem. Continue assessment of species diversity and abundance.

Associated Tasks ID # Lead Partners Updated Status
Model and project the impacts of climate change on fish and wildlife communities in the Lake Champlain Basin that may result from climate change. View Task Comments 6.11.2 LCBP 12-13-13 Active

Expand 7.8) Determine the impact of climate change on the spread and management of aquatic invasive species.

Associated Tasks ID # Lead Partners Updated Status
Create a list of high-priority AIS not yet present in the Basin and evaluate whether range expansions are likely by 2014. Reevaluate this list with partners every 5 years. View Task Comments 7.8.1 LCBP, LCSG Inactive
Reevaluate management procedures for AIS in light of predicted climate conditions by 2014. View Task Comments 7.8.2 LCBP, Québec 05-09-14 Active

Expand 10.3) Develop adaptive management capacity to manage the anticipated impacts of climate change, particularly on the changing dynamics between hydrological processes and eutrophication.

Associated Tasks ID # Lead Partners Updated Status
Identify impacts and indicators of climate change on the regional economy as related to agriculture, business (water quality related), forest products, and tourism by 2013. View Task Comments 10.3.1 LCBP 09-10-14 Active
Subsequent to completion of 10.3.1, incorporate mitigation of climate change into an adaptive management framework for the Lake Champlain economy by 2015. View Task Comments 10.3.2 LCBP Inactive
Identify the long-term benefits of river restoration programs by 2013, given the expected increase in the severity and frequency of storm events. View Task Comments 10.3.3 LCBP 08-30-13 Active

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