The Universal Notebook: A year without summer

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Unless I’m mistaken, 2011 is shaping up to be another year without a summer, at least not much of one.

Here we are sailing into July and I haven’t been to the beach yet, we don’t have the raft out at the lake, and next week is Clam Festival. Having lived in Yarmouth 30 years now, I have come to regard Clam Festival, always the second weekend in July, as summer’s halfway point.

I know, I know, summer only officially started June 21, but as my late, great friend Carlo Pittore used to sing, “There’s only two seasons in Maine – winter and the Fourth of July.”

Actually, because the season is so short, rarely more than 10 weeks, Mainers tend to measure summer from Memorial Day to Labor Day, even though mud season often doesn’t end until well into June and fall often comes crashing down on us in mid-August.

Yesterday I picked a flat of strawberries at Maxwell’s in Cape Elizabeth and Carolyn made jam after supper, so we will have a taste of summer all year. But the cool, dry nights and the absence of heat wave tell my body that it’s not really summer yet.

The historical “Year Without a Summer” was 1816, when ash thrown into the atmosphere by the eruption of Mt. Tambora the year before lowered the average global temperature by a single degree. You wouldn’t think 1 degree would make any noticeable difference, but it snowed in Maine in June, and frost kills and crop failures triggered a worldwide subsistence crisis.

You may have noticed that last week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released data that showed that the 30-year normal temperature in the United States is now 1.5 degrees warmer than it was in the 1970s. Oh yuh, baby, you climate change deniers can cruise around in your big-mother trucks bragging about your huge carbon footprints, but you’re gonna burn right along with the rest of us. Being stupid doesn’t exempt you from the laws of nature.

Screw with the environment and it’ll screw you right back, Bubba. It’s not just that it’s getting warmer, it’s that temperature changes in the air, the earth, and the water set off systemic changes. An increase in violent weather events is one price we are paying already. Floods of historic proportions inundate the Midwest and we’ve now got tornadoes touching down in New England. In fact, the U.S. has seen an almost three-fold increase in tornadoes (1,411 versus 507) in the first five months of 2011, compared to the same period last year.

OK, so it’s going to be a while before melting ice caps cause enough sea level rise to drown coastal Maine, but small temperature changes can have subtle and unforeseen consequences. Last year’s long, hot summer, for example, prompted bees to stay active well beyond the pollen season, resulting in a 40 percent honeybee die-off. Big deal, right? Unless of course, you’re trying to pollinate plants to feed a hungry planet.

But not to worry, Mr. & Mrs. V8-Powered SUV, the thermometer seems to be swinging back this summer. Even on sunny days, the heat of the sun is subverted by a coolness left over from winter and implicit of the fall. Stick your hand out the window at 80 mph and feel the winds of change.

It’s kind of like having fever and chills at the same time.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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