Earth Day 2024: Experts Comment on Climate Change, Plastics and Environmental Challenges

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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DURHAM, N.H. — As Earth Day approaches, experts at the University of New Hampshire are available to offer insight around some of Mother Earth’s most pressing environmental challenges like climate change, lengthening seasons, increasing sea-level rise, diminishing snow and this year’s Earth Day theme, the “Planet vs. Plastics”. UNH researchers can speak to the risk of plastics in our watersheds and oceans, as well as a wide range of issues from warming winters and disappearing snowfall to increased coastal flooding, infrastructure concerns, ecosystem impacts and the importance of reduced emissions.

Plastics in streams and rivers

Wilfred Wollheim, professor of natural resources and the environment; 603-862-5022

Wollheim, the director of UNH’s Water Systems Analysis Group, is researching plastics accumulation in rivers near three major cities: Boston, Chicago and Toronto. Wollheim and his collaborators are focused on figuring out just how much of that plastic from these urban areas may settle in streams and rivers, break into pieces, pollute the water or enter the Great Lakes or the ocean. His earlier research showed climate change may be much stronger by the middle of the 21st century, significantly decreasing snow days and increasing the number of days over 90 degrees causing a drastic decline in stream habitat making 40% unsuitable for cold water fish.

Plastics in the ocean

Gabriela Bradt, fisheries specialist UNH Extension and N.H. Sea Grant;  603-862-2033

To help identify the impact that plastic pollution may be having on beaches, Bradt created and coordinated a coast-wide citizen-science microplastics monitoring program. In her role at N.H. Sea Grant, she partnered with the Blue Ocean Society to visit popular beaches with a group of local volunteers to collect sand samples and sort out microplastics between 1-5mm in size. They can include fragments of larger plastics such as bottles, films from straw wrappers, pieces of foam and filaments of rope or synthetic fibers. This data was recently compiled into an easy to use dashboard that can help inform local state and town policy makers and inspire new research and solutions.

Sea-level rise and infrastructure

Jennifer Jacobs, professor of civil and environmental engineering;  603-862-0635

Jacobs is a leading expert on the effect of flooding and its impact on coastal resiliency and infrastructure. She can talk about related issues that are threatening areas along the coast—like sea-level rise, flooding and snowmelt—and the challenges faced by residents and town officials dealing with related destruction caused by the endless wear and tear like pavement erosion, potholes, compromised bridges and seawalls. Some of Jacobs’s research has focused on so-called “nuisance flooding,” that happens along shore roadways during high tides or wind events. It found that in the past 20 years roads along the East Coast have experienced a 90 percent increase in flooding often making the roads in these communities impassable and causing delays, stress and impacting transportation of goods and services. Jacob was the lead author of the transportation chapter for the fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) that offered insight into the challenges of climate change on U.S. infrastructure.

Coastal flooding and road resilience

Jo Sias, professor of civil and environmental engineering; 603-862-3277

New England roadways are becoming more vulnerable due to increasingly wetter winters, hot summers, intense tropical storms, steady sea-level rise and increased flooding. Sias is an expert in road resilience and her research looks at how and why climate change hazards, like high temperatures and excessive flooding, are causing roads to crumble and crack and looking for ways to protect them. The focus of the work is to understand the combined hazards of flooding from above and below the road. The goal is to create high-resolution models to study the effects of sea-level rise on roadways as well as develop a toolkit to help assess the effectiveness of alternatives. Sias can comment on the effect of climate change, flooding and sea-level rise on infrastructure and roadways, like erosion, potholes and even softening asphalt from record high temperatures.

Climate Change

Mary Stampone, associate professor of Geography and New Hampshire State Climatologist; 603-862-3136

As the New Hampshire State Climatologist, Stampone provides New Hampshire citizens, educators and agencies with weather and climate information in support of environmental management and planning activities. She is a co-author of the New Hampshire Coastal Flood Risk Summary Part 1: Science that found sea-level rise along the coast in New Hampshire and southern Maine has risen almost 8 inches in the last century impacting everything from coastal property to public infrastructure, human health, public safety and natural resources especially during nor’easters and high astronomical tides. She was also co-author of the 2021 N.H. Climate Assessment Report which points to a warmer and longer spring and fall and shows that annual rainfall is expected to increase another 7% to 9% by the middle of the century.

Warmer winters and longer springs

Alexandra Contosta, research assistant professor; 603-862-4204 

As the Earth continues to warm, climate change is causing a lot of environmental challenges including a shift in the seasons—shorter, warmer winters with less snow and followed by longer springs—as well as an increase in ‘winter weather whiplash’—unexpected swings between extreme cold and anomalous warmth. All can have adverse consequences on ecosystems and human communities. Contosta’s work examines the lasting impact of these changes in weather and how understanding them can help decision makers, managers and environmental planners adapt to potential ecological, social and economic consequences. Her focus is on the effect of longer springs (lengthening vernal window), the delicate balance between land use, carbon storage and climate, and that it’s not too late to slow some of the warming by reducing emissions. Contosta can talk about the effects of seasonal freezing and thawing on the environment, the consequences of no snow winters on ecosystems, outdoor recreation, and vital New England industries and how individuals can make a difference.

Future of winter: Impact on ecosystems of no snow winters

Elizabeth Burakowski, research assistant professor; 603-862-1796

Winters are warming faster than summers in North America, impacting everything from ecosystems to the economy. Global climate models indicate that this trend will continue in future winters. Burakowski, co-author of the 2021 N.H. Climate Assessment Report, was raised on the local ski hills of New England and says that winters are vital to everyone and serious action is needed now to slow the warming to preserve the purpose of cold weather and snow which includes protecting woodland animals, preventing the spread of invasive forest pests and increasing the ability of ski resorts to make snow—protecting the region’s multimillion-dollar recreation industry. Burakowski’s research focuses on better understanding how changes in land cover (i.e. deforestation) affect surface temperature, energy and water, like rivers. She has an interest in studying the impact of reduced emissions on reducing warming and has several projects that focus on how less winter snow adversely affects the New England ski industry.

Climate Change and Outdoor Recreation

Michael Ferguson, associate professor of recreation management and policy

Warmer winters and less snow cover in the Northeast have many concerned, including those who work in outdoor recreation. Ferguson researches the impact environmental issues have on the industry—including fracking and offshore wind energy development, as well as the stress and effect of the substantial increase of visitation to park and protected areas during the COVID pandemic. His recent research looks at the influence of climate change on outdoor recreation in New Hampshire, a $2.7 billion industry, as part of the 2024-28 N.H. Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan that helps guide the N.H. Division of Parks and Recreation. The study found that 75% of those that worked in the field were negatively impacted by climate change and 58% of outdoor recreation users were also feeling the affects –citing shorter winter seasons, storm damage to infrastructure, fluctuating water levels and fewer days of snow/ice coverage.