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Climate Change a Pervasive Reality on Cape Cod

Sharon Petersen of PJ's Cranberries in East Sandwich loads cranberries into a cranberry seperator. Owner Pete Hanlon says he's concerned about climate change.
Steve Haines
Cape Cod Times
Sharon Petersen of PJ's Cranberries in East Sandwich loads cranberries into a cranberry seperator. Owner Pete Hanlon says he's concerned about climate change.

What if climate change isn’t something that is going to happen in the distant future, somewhere far away? What if it’s happening right here, right now? That's the question the Cape Cod Times is asking - and answering - all week in a special series on the local impacts of climate change, from shrinking beaches and disappearing lobsters to more aggressive storms.

Cape Cod Times reporter Doug Fraser has been covering Cape Cod since 1993, and photographer Steve Heaslip has been on the beat for thirty four years. Both say they've witnessed climate change with their own eyes, and relish every opportunity to shine a spotlight on the issue.

But the picture isn't a pretty one. Consider:

  • Air temperatures have been rising rapidly. Changes in winter temperatures have been particularly dramatic, increasing an average of 1.3 degrees F per decade between 1970 and 2000. Summer temperatures have risen just half a degree per decade during that same time. Still, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, Massachusetts could see between 3 and 28 days over 100 degrees F by the year 2100; we currently see fewer than two such days. 
  • Ocean surface temperatures could increase by 8 degrees F by 2100 - again, assuming a high emissions scenario. To put that into perspective, average water temperatures off the northeast coast have risen 1.8-3.6 degrees F in the past century, and that is already wreaking havoc on New England's fisheries. Two thirds of commercially exploited marine species, from lobsters to cod, are shifting where they live, with most heading northward and offshore, to stay within their comfort zones. The southern New England lobster fishery has been crippled, and fishery scientists have said climate change may be one reason cod aren't responding to fishing restrictions as hoped.
  • Rising ocean and air temperatures also contribute to the problem of sea level rise in a variety of ways, from melting land-based ice sheets, to changing ocean currents, and the expansion of water as it warms. Sea level along the coast of New England has already risen nearly a foot in the past century, and that will only accelerate. Even with significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, another eight inches of sea level rise is likely by 2050; that jumps to sixteen inches with higher emissions. The extra water, combined with more intense storms, is eating away at Cape Cod's coastline.

While it's too late to avoid many short-term impacts, reducing emissions would help ward off worst-case scenarios by the end of this century. There's a big difference between three feet and seven feet of sea level rise. Fraser and Heaslip say many people they encounter still think climate change is an issue for another day, and some don't think it's an issue at all. But, they say, extreme weather and undeniable changes over the past few years are starting to change the minds of some who used to doubt the veracity of climate change. 

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