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Climate Change Threatens U.S. Culinary Traditions, From Maple Syrup to Hot Sauce

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Only 45 percent of Americans think climate change will be a serious threat in their lifetimes, but if the other 55 percent like real maple syrup on their pancakes, or Tabasco sauce on their shrimp, they might find it poses a serious threat to their taste buds.

Stories reported by New Hampshire Public Radio and The Guardian this week examined, respectively, how climate change is putting pressure on New Hampshire's maple syrup season and swallowing the marshes that protect Avery Island in Louisiana, where Tabasco sauce has been made for the past 150 years.


At an annual Climate and Pancakes breakfast hosted by New Hampshire environmental groups Tuesday, Mount Washington Observatory research director Eric Kelsey said that the sap-sugar content of the state's famous maple trees has decreased by 25 percent in the past half-century.

The reasons for the decrease in sweetness are likely stresses put on the trees by droughts, abnormal storms and the road salt that accompanies them, new pests, and acid rain, Kelsey said.

According to Kelsey, climate change is a "wild card" in terms of predicting whether those stresses will increase or decrease in the long term, but research published in the International Journal of Biodiversity Science, Ecosystem Services & Management last year found that, if carbon dioxide emissions remain high, U.S. maple habitat will decline, and it will take an extra 5 million taps to maintain current syrup production.

According to data from the University of Vermont's Proctor Maple Research Center published by MapleSource.com, sugaring season relies on cycles of freezing and thawing. These cycles are now starting earlier and lasting for a shorter time, decreasing the amount of tree sap produced, though so far technological innovations have compensated for the shorter season.

Arnold Coombs, whose family has been producing syrup in Vermont for seven generations, told MapleSource.com that he had noticed a change. "As a rule of thumb, we would never tap before town meeting day (first Tuesday in March), it was just too cold. But year after year it would warm up earlier. We're now tapping in mid-February so we don't miss any of the season," he said.

About 17,000 miles further south, another seventh generation condiment producer is also grappling with the impacts of climate change.

Tony Simmons is the seventh in a line of McIlhenny family members who have been making Tabasco on Avery Island since Edmund McIlhenny found a pepper plant growing by a chicken coup and founded the company in 1868.

But the marshes that surround and protect Avery Island, really a salt dome rising from the bayou, are being swallowed by sea-water at a rate of 30 feet a year.

In addition to sea level rise caused by climate change, the marshes are also disappearing due to canals dug by the oil and gas industries and the sinking of the land beneath them. If sea levels rise by just two feet in the area, which the U.S. Global Change Research Program shows is possible as early as 2050, the marshes will disappear.

Rising waters have thrown the Tabasco company into the unlikely role of wetlands conservationist.

"The marsh stands between us and Vermilion Bay, and we don't want to be right on the bay," Simmons told The Guardian. "We have to be very aggressive about dealing with the land loss. We almost can't work fast enough."

The company has begun refilling canals, building weirs to stop sea water, and planting chord grasses. After Hurricane Rita flooded their production area in 2005, they built a 17 foot levee around their factory.

But if their efforts aren't enough to beat back the sea, the company could relocate, though it's not an option that appeals to Simmons.

"We don't think it will come to that, but we are working to do everything we can to make sure it won't happen to us," he told The Guardian. "I mean, we could make Tabasco somewhere else. But this is more than a business: this is our home."

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