The writer is a contributing columnist, based in Chicago
Climate change is coming to a breakfast table near you: global warming is hitting the US maple syrup industry. Tapping trees for sap is already starting earlier, and within years or decades, sap will be less sugary, each tap will yield less and some parts of the US will stop producing the iconic pancake topping altogether, maple experts say.
Maple syrup season — which traditionally begins on the cusp of the northern hemisphere spring — can be a teachable moment, says Toni Lyn Morelli, climate change ecologist at the US Geological Survey, and one of the authors of a recent study on global warming and maple syrup. Focusing on this household item “lets people see the impact of climate change right in their own backyard . . . and in a way that might otherwise not be so obvious,” she told me.
So these days I’m looking at my neighbourhood maples in a whole new light: as harbingers of environmental trouble just like their more headline-worthy relatives in the Amazon. In these unseasonably balmy days of late winter, they are gushing sap, whose flow is linked to freeze-thaw cycles. On the nearby campus of Northwestern University — which is studying climate change in this unsung bit of the North American maple syrup belt — the ever-so-slightly-sweet sap (which is more than 96 per cent water) drips through clear plastic tubes into gallon jugs strapped to the trunks by students.
“Maple sugarin’” was an indigenous economic and cultural practice in these parts for hundreds of years before my European ancestors arrived, and it has a strong nostalgic appeal for Midwesterners. Dozens of do-it-yourself tapping events are being held here. I joined in at Wisconsin’s Riveredge Nature Centre, where citizen science manager Mary Holleback helped children as young as three start the sap flowing with a handheld bit-and-brace drill. It was too cold for the tree we tapped in the morning to give sap. But the sun came out, and by lunchtime it was flowing.
Kailyn Palomares, 24, another Wisconsin maple enthusiast, says she’s been tapping trees since she was in college, and warmer temperatures meant this year was the earliest in a decade. Seasons across the US are earlier and shorter already; but Morelli and colleagues predict that by 2100, the sap collection season midpoint will be earlier by a month, sugar content will fall and the region of peak sap flow will move 400km north, into Canada. She says some areas — maples are tapped as far south as Virginia — will stop producing.
But Eli Suzukovich III, a Northwestern University professor and field museum research scientist, predicts there will be no “maple-pocalypse”, despite global warming. “The maple industry is not going to fail,” he told me. “In fact, climate change is favouring some regions.” He says Canada, which now produces about three-quarters of the world’s maple syrup, “will probably go to 85 per cent”. Canadian maple syrup production hit a record high last year.
Suzukovich, who is a Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa/Cree descendant, says the key will be to learn from Native American communities — and tap trees earlier when winters are warmer. Diversifying sources of sweet sap will also help, he says, noting that the black walnut trees tapped by his students this year have nearly twice the sugar content of campus sugar maples. Black walnut syrup isn’t common on pancakes, but we both agree that is surely not an insuperable marketing challenge.
Newer technologies, such as using plastic tubing for taps which improves sap yield and cuts labour, can also help overcome the effects of global warming, says Morelli.
Steven Anderson’s family has been making maple syrup in Wisconsin for 95 years, and he says his 94-year-old father has long insisted that “ebbs and flows” in syruping were normal. “But now he’s starting to admit that we really are having a lot of mild winters.”
Over the past 50 years, his firm has moved up the average date it starts cooking sap into syrup by about two weeks, he says. The 48-year-old is certain they will still be making syrup when he is 94, but “there may be more years when we have a poor crop. It feels more volatile.” And that, he says, is climate change — hitting the kitchen table where it hurts.