EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 26, 2014

Editorial: A front row seat to nature's changing scene

The Eagle-Tribune

---- — Anyone who pays even scant attention to environmental news has heard a steady drumbeat of stories and reports demonstrating how the world’s ecology is steadily changing. These reports can seem distant and unconnected to us, until you begin to consider how even in our small piece of the world, there are signs all around us that in the span of just a few years we are witnessing some dramatic changes.

Many have been chronicled in the pages of The Eagle-Tribune and its sister newspapers, The Daily News of Newburyport, Salem News and Gloucester Daily Times.

One phenomenon is a change in the ice on the lower Merrimack River. Up to 80 years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for the river to freeze so thickly that humans, horses and sleighs could cross it. Today such a phenomenon is unthinkable. The river rarely freezes all the way across, never thickly enough for a human to walk across it, let alone a horse.

Experts who study our rivers and environment don’t have a specific culprit in mind; rather it’s a combination of things. Data compiled by the federal government shows that winters are no longer as cold as they once were, although other data shows there has been no global warming in more than a decade.

There has also been an increase in the flow of fresh water in the Merrimack, which has made it more difficult for the river to freeze. The Merrimack Valley region in particular has seen a surge in the amount of rainfall it experiences annually. Dams and reservoirs have changed the flow of the river, injecting more fresh water. And there is also an increase in the amount of runoff going into the river from industrial and commercial sites, roads, and residential neighborhoods, all a result of increased development.

Taken together, they have altered what was once a common winter phenomenon and made it extinct.

Another notable change, far more sweeping, may be more clearly seen in a few months. Water temperatures off our immediate coast have been warming. Three years ago, it was unheard of to find bonita fish and black sea bass in local waters. They never ventured further north than the southernmost region of Cape Cod. Two years ago, fishermen began to catch them occasionally off our shores -- 100 miles north of what used to be their northernmost reach.

The local shrimp fishery is gone; they have moved north as the waters have warmed. And scientists have been unraveling another mystery tied to ocean temperatures -- a dramatic change in the behavior of right whales. It’s long been common for them to pass along our local coast in the late spring on their way to Canada’s Bay of Fundy, where they feast on microscopic zooplankton that bloom in those waters in the summer. Right whales were a common sight in the Bay of Fundy until about two years ago, when they all but disappeared.

Experts say that ocean temperatures are to blame. The zooplankton is blooming further north, and the whales are following it.

Another notable place to see change is on the barrier beaches, where the usual patterns of erosion have become more harsh and damaging. Locations that have weathered the ebb and floe of erosion for years -- like Bennett Hill on Plum Island -- are now succumbing to it. Experts say ocean levels are rising gradually, but many other factors are at play in a complex system of wind, tides and the river’s flow.

It’s no secret that the world around us is changing — and will continue to change in ways we can’t anticipate or explain definitively. It’s a matter of paying attention to what is happening in your own backyard, and considering what is happening and why.