Several hundred scientists, conservationists and government leaders from New England and the Canadian Maritimes are gathering in Portland to discuss the rapid ecological changes in the Gulf of Maine and how the region should respond.

The Gulf of Maine 2050 International Symposium will focus on the science of sea level rise, ocean acidification and warming ocean waters, as well as how those climate-related changes will affect the regional economy, environment and population over the next three decades.

“Preparing for 2050 is a major challenge, but it is one that we won’t face alone,” said Theresa Torrent of the Maine Department of Marine Resources Maine Coastal Program and the state’s coordinator on the international Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment. “The purpose of Gulf of Maine 2050 is to activate the talents of people around the Gulf of Maine and build a safe and productive future.”

The conference – hosted by the Gulf of Maine Council, the Portland-based Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the Huntsman Marine Science Centre in St. Andrews, New Brunswick – comes at a time when New England’s waters and forests are already experiencing dramatic changes.

Another goal of the gathering, however, is to foster collaboration among states and provinces at a time when President Trump is increasingly isolating the United States from the international community on climate issues.

As scientists gathered at the Westin Harborview Hotel in Portland on Monday, the Trump administration followed through on its pledge to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord. By notifying the United Nations of the its plans to withdraw from the agreement, the Trump administration is walking away from the international goals set to avoid an additional global temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius.

Speaking hours before the Trump administration’s announcement, Maine Gov. Janet Mills recalled how earlier this year her administration joined the U.S. Climate Alliance coalition of 24 states that are committed to the goals of the Paris climate accord “no matter what happens in Washington.”

Mills, who made action on climate change a cornerstone of her 2018 gubernatorial campaign, has set a goal of achieving carbon neutrality in Maine by 2045 and of reducing Maine’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050.

“Our administration believes in science,” Mills said during the conference’s opening remarks. “We share a love of our great state’s natural resources, outdoor recreation and coastal communities, all of which are threatened by climate change.”

While the political debate over climate change continues in some sectors, the Gulf of Maine is already experiencing significant changes.

The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than almost every other area of ocean around the globe, according research by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and other scientists. And those changes have major ecological implications.

Colder-water species such as cod are moving north or into deeper waters while warmer-water species, such as black bass, are moving into the gulf. The gulf also is becoming increasingly acidic as the ocean absorbs more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which can impede shell formation by lobsters, scallops, clams and other shellfish.

Last week, Maine fisheries regulators announced that lobster landings were down 40 percent this year compared to 2018 and down 38 percent from the five-year average. During her speech, Mills said a long-predicted end to the so-called “lobster boom” would have a “devastating” impact on Maine’s commercial fishing industry and that other Maine fisheries are threatened by acidification or invasive species.

“The antidote to this lies in climate, ocean and ocean-species science – which so many of you bring to this conference today and tomorrow – which will better form the basis of public policy that is driven by reason and research, and not rhetoric,” Mills said.

Globally, sea levels rose 3 inches between 1993 and 2017 and continue to rise at a rate of roughly one-eighth of an inch annually as glaciers melt and seawater expands thermally as it warms, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That is roughly double the rate for much of the 20th century.

Additionally, global temperatures already have risen roughly 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit or 1 degree Celsius since pre-industrial levels. The Paris climate agreement called on member nations to work toward goals of holding future temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a level that reports from the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change have suggested could avoid some of the more catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Ko Barrett, a deputy assistant administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who has served as vice chair of International Panel on Climate Change, told Monday’s conference that the world is projected to hit that 1.5-degree mark between 2030 and 2052 at the current pace. But Barrett said “the good news is we are not yet committed to a 1.5-degree world.”

“While not impossible, limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is a monumental task that would require rapid, unprecedented transitions in all aspects of society – transitions like we are seeing in the energy sector, only faster and in many different sectors simultaneously,” Barrett said.

Over the next three days, conference attendees will share their scientific research into sea level rise, ocean acidification and ocean temperature rise in the Gulf of Maine. Organizers also will be awarding “mini-grants” to research proposals that spring from conversations at the conference.

Rachel Cleetus, policy director for climate and energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told attendees that scientists must do a better job of communicating how a changing climate affects the health, lives and economics of everyday people.

Cleetus also said state action on climate change has become “a beacon of hope” amid federal inaction on the climate crisis. Addressing the bigger issues will require dramatic changes to cleaner sources in electricity generation and the transportation sector as well as protecting the “carbon sinks,” such as forests, that lock up carbon dioxide.

“It’s going to require some pretty fundamental shifts in how we make our investments in the power sector,” Cleetus said. “And the important part here is that Maine is setting a course that will work not just for Maine, but could be an example elsewhere in the nation and globally.”

 

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