How might climate change affect Maryland?

Average Temperature Plot

From mountains to oceans, urban environments to rural, Maryland has many different types of landscapes to offer residents and visitors alike. The unique opportunities provided by the Chesapeake Bay, the rural farmland and temperate climate favorable for raising poultry and growing crops such as corn, soybeans, and melons have provided Maryland with a flavor all its own.

The climate of Maryland, along with that of the rest of the world, is changing though. As it changes, we are all learning more about what effects climate change might have at regional and state levels. For Maryland, climate change is likely to mean increased average annual temperatures, rising sea levels, and changes in patterns of precipitation.

Increasing average annual temperatures are already being documented for the state and are expected to increase by 2 degrees Fahrenheit from the 1998 average temperature by 2025. With rising temperatures comes a series of challenges for everyone. All residents are likely to experience increased energy costs from needing to run their air conditioners more often to keep their homes cool. For those that do not have air conditioning, increased temperatures are going to be more uncomfortable and especially challenging for the elderly. The number of days over 90 degrees Fahrenheit are expected to double from 30 per year to over 60 per year by the end of this century. Farmers, too, will have new challenges with rising temperatures. Those growing crops will face more frequent drought conditions and can expect to have increased water usage needs. Poultry and other livestock farmers can expect to have increased cooling needs for their barns to keep their animals healthy and producing. Warming temperatures will have troublesome consequences for water dwelling organisms as well. Freshwater fish, such as brook trout, may become restricted to high-elevation streams as lower-elevation streams heat up. As the ocean warms eelgrass beds, important spawning habitat for fish and other wildlife, will suffer (eelgrass beds don't do well in warm waters). Increased water temperatures will also mean an increase in opportunity for new fish parasites that may not have been able to survive in colder waters.

Blue Bird at PatuxentChanging temperatures are predicted to bring with them changing precipitation patterns. Precipitation is expected to be more frequent during the winter months in Maryland and less frequent during the summer months, when it is most needed. Also, increasing urbanization and more unpredictable weather patterns are expected to lead to more harmful storm events and flooding problems across the state. Farmlands are likely to experience flooding more often in the late winter/early spring, which will cause problems for planting and growing early season crops such as melons and tomatoes. In addition, flooding may lead to increased risk of contamination to drinking water sources such as wells and increased erosion and sedimentation in river systems.

Rising sea levels, already occurring along Maryland's coasts, are expected to continue to rise. They have risen by as much as 1 foot since the early 1900's. Rising sea levels cause flooding of economically and ecologically important tidal marshes (key breeding habitat for fish and other important sea creatures). Because of urban development along these coastal areas, the ability of tidal marshes to simply shift further inland has lessened significantly. Areas like the bald cypress swamps and other riparian woodlands are also at risk of being lost with rising sea levels.

What does this mean for Patuxent Research Refuge?

Trail in PatuxentChanging climates mean a variety of changes for a state like Maryland that has many unique habitats. Western Maryland is predicted to experience increased drought frequency which may negatively impact ecosystems such as mountain peatland wetlands and the endangered bog turtle. Forested areas of the state may experience an increase in hemlock woolly adelgid populations, which do better during milder winters. And if spring becomes drier, gypsy moth infestations may also increase. Across the state, species may attempt to move north or south to adapt to changing temperatures and that may prove difficult for many species if the lands they try to move to are urbanized. All of these challenges, and many more, will face land managers of Patuxent Research Refuge and other wildlife refuges across the U.S. You can help them prepare for these changes by tracking changes in plant communities through Project BudBurst at Patuxent Research Refuge. You can monitor selected plant species when you visit or volunteer at the Refuge. Your observations are important for helping everyone better understand how plants are responding to changing environmental conditions.


Photo: Bluebird (middle) and Volunteer with visitors at Patuxent Research Refuge (bottom), Courtesy of the USFWS

Boicourt K and ZP Johnson (eds.). 2010. Comprehensive Strategy for Reducing Maryland's Vulnerability to Climate Change, Phase II: Building societal, economic, and ecological resilience. Report of the Maryland Commission on Climate Change, Adaptation and Response and Scientific and Technical Working Groups. University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Cambridge, Maryland and Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Annapolis, Maryland. Accessed Nov 2011.

Climatograph data from The Weather Channel website. Accessed Dec 2011.