04/02/2014 12:09 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2014

UMaine Grad Student Researching Effects of Weather, Climate Change on Maple Sugaring Industry

With the arrival of April the 2014 maple syrup season in Maine bids adieu, and what would have been a good season may have been thwarted by frigid temperatures, which lingered longer than has been the norm in recent years.

The sap flow in maple trees, which usually begins in late February and lasts four to six weeks depending on alternating freezing and thawing cycles, got off to a late start. Two years ago during the 2012 sugaring season, temperatures were already hitting the high 60's by the end of March, cutting the season short.

Jenny Shrum, a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Maine School of Biology and Ecology, is researching the biophysical relationships between weather and sap flow. Her goal is to better understand what causes flow and how anticipated climate-driven trends may affect producers and production methods in the future.

Her love of pure maple syrup and being outdoors were impetuses in this study, as was the idea that in 100 years the season in New England could be 30 days earlier, but that the output will be virtually the same so people can adapt. She thinks that is dangerous thinking: "You can't just say that if people can adjust to a 30-day earlier system everything will be fine when we don't really understand the full process," Shrum said.

"For instance we don't know much about how soil temperatures influences the sap flow process. So maybe the trees appear like they are going to start flowing earlier and earlier, but if we're not getting as much snow pack during the winter, maybe the ground is freezing to deeper depths because it doesn't have that thermal pack -- that thermal layer on top. This is just hypothetical example. My point is that there are a lot of coincidences in nature that we don't acknowledge until events fall out of sync."

Shrum is recording data on weather and sap flow from sugar bushes in Albion, Dixmont, and Orono, Maine. She set up remote cameras that take hourly pictures of clear collection buckets with measurements written on the side so she can record sap flow rates. see the depth of sap as it rises in the bucket. On-site weather stations hourly record data, such as wind speed, barometric pressure, precipitation, and temperature. She is also using iButtons (remote temperature loggers) buried in the soil at different depths so she will also be able to feed soil temperature data into her equations. Shrum can then generate a model that will accurately predict sap flow as related to weather and soil temperature variables.

The other aspect of her research is conducting interviews with small- and large-scale producers who have been sugaring for many years. "I'm asking a whole suite of questions to try and understand the links between people's relationship with their land, where they get their information from, how they perceive climate change, and their motivation for harvesting to begin with," Shrum said. "I'm trying to piece together how those four things are related. I think that also plays into whether people will want to collect maple syrup in the future, and which people."

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. maple syrup production in 2013 totaled 3.25 million gallons, up 70 percent from 2012. Maine is the third largest maple producing state after Vermont and New York, pulling in 14 percent or 450,000 gallons last year.

Shrum believes maple sugaring operations will continue to exist, but that it might be in the form of the bigger operations. "If the timing of the season changes as predicted, the equipment that is required to actually make it worth anyone's while is going to be cost prohibitive unless you are doing it on the large scale," Shrum said. "Maybe we'll end up losing the mom and pop operations and the people who are collecting in their backyard. Maybe we'll lose the culture the same way people in Virginia and Maryland have."

Motivating people to take the threat of climate change seriously is nothing new. Some people have a good sense about climate change, recognize things are changing and that there is a need to use more sustainable farming practices and find ways to cope with what is predicted. However, there are plenty of people who though they have lived on the same property for three decades or longer extracting resources directly derived from nature, have yet to believe things are changing.

From Shrum's conversations with sugar makers thus far, she has found the duration of time a producer has spent at a place may have little to do with believing in climate change. "More and more I feel like what happens is that people have a lens coming in and they either believe in climate change or they don't," she said. "So often what we see is totally shaped by what we already believe."

Shrum believes there has to be a way to get people to appreciate what is happening and recognize the importance of all the climate change data researchers in New England and the North Atlantic have found so there can be a back and forth about reaching salient solutions.

Shrum's research is supported by the National Science Foundation and EPSCoR through UMaine's Sustainability Solutions Initiative and its Effects of Climate Change on Organisms research project.