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Climate change will make Baltimore County warmer and wetter, report says – some already feel the heat

Doug Carroll, who lives on farmland along the Jones Falls in Baltimore County, describes heavy erosion he's seen from flooding and heavy rainfall in recent years.
Doug Carroll, who lives on farmland along the Jones Falls in Baltimore County, describes heavy erosion he's seen from flooding and heavy rainfall in recent years.(Cody Boteler / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Doug Carroll has lived on his family farm in Baltimore County, just west of Falls Road, for decades. He was around when the farm shifted from growing corn and wheat to renting pastureland to horse owners.

There have been other changes, too. Traffic on Falls Road has gotten worse, neighbors have come and gone, and more deer seem to live in the area.

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But more alarmingly, trees have started to die off, erosion on the banks of the Jones Falls that runs through his property has gotten worse, fields are flooding more often, and there are fewer birds and bugs than there used to be, Carroll said.

“I’ve seen some really big changes,” he said.

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Carroll’s family has been on the farm for at least 100 years, he said. Spread across 100 acres, he has two cattle, around a dozen chickens and the pastureland. There are also hundreds of trees on his property, including oak, ash and poplar. He’s identified hundreds of dead ash trees and already taken down about 40.

The culprit is the emerald ash borer, an invasive insect that kills the trees, Carroll said. It’s been somewhere between the past three and five years that the ash trees started to become brittle and die. As they fall, they’ve damaged fences and buildings on the property, so Carroll sometimes will down the trees before they can cause too much damage. More recently, some oak trees on the property have started to die.

Doug Carroll, who lives on farmland along the Jones Falls in Baltimore County, described a recent die-off of trees on his property. As ash trees die and become brittle, he said, they fall and sometimes damage fences or buildings on his farm.
Doug Carroll, who lives on farmland along the Jones Falls in Baltimore County, described a recent die-off of trees on his property. As ash trees die and become brittle, he said, they fall and sometimes damage fences or buildings on his farm.(Cody Boteler / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

And most recently, increased periods of heavy rain have led to high levels of erosion along the riverbank of the section of the Jones Falls that cuts through Carroll’s property. Within the past two years, he said, flooding and the flow of the river have eroded dirt and sand, killed trees that grew along the river and cut banks that are 6 or 7 feet high.

Floods occur more regularly, and when the Jones Falls overruns its banks, it covers some of the fields on his farmland in feet of water, Carroll said. Sometimes, the floodwaters deposit sediment in the fields, which can kill the grass or brush growing there.

The changes Carroll describe paint a picture of how large swaths of Baltimore County could be affected by climate change in the not-too-distant future.

“The scale of the problem is so huge, we can’t deal with it,” Carroll said.

Baltimore County’s warmer, wetter future

As the global climate continues to change, northern Baltimore County will see a warmer and wetter future, according to a report commissioned by the Valleys Planning Council.

The report, completed by engineering and consulting firm WSP USA, projects a future where Baltimore County has more days that climb above 90 degrees Fahrenheit by 2040, has higher minimum monthly temperatures by 2037 and continuously has more extreme precipitation events.

Specifically, the report warns parts of Baltimore County could see between 51 and 54 days with temperatures above 90 degrees by 2040, and up to three months of temperatures that high by 2080. Minimum winter temperatures are expected to increase by up to 3.5 degrees by 2037 and by up to 6.2 degrees by 2062.

Teresa Moore, executive director of the Valleys Planning Council, a nonprofit that conserves land and the “rural feel” of northwestern Baltimore County, said she did not find the results of the report to be “shocking.”

“We just wanted to figure out what this all [climate change] means for us,” she said. “[To figure out] what we need to be ready to manage and to adapt.”

Overall, the report says Baltimore County can expect a mixed bag as the climate changes: There will be higher risks of runoff, flooding and saturated fields; higher summer temperatures could damage crop and soil health; oak trees will be stressed under higher temperatures; biodiversity is at risk; and invasive species, like the emerald ash borer, could fare better under warmer conditions.

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However, the county also can expect a longer growing season, and some enhanced carbon concentrations could lead to increased crop growth, although too much is problematic, the report says.

Some in Baltimore County are already feeling the effects. A survey by the Valleys Planning Council last summer found more than 90% of respondents saw an increase in weeds and invasive plants; 69% of respondents with streams on their property reported increased erosion, stream volume and/or flooding; and nearly 90% of respondents said they had lost trees on their property to causes including ash borers, high winds, saturated soils and erosion.

Brian Fath, a professor at Towson University who studies the intersections of ecosystems and human ecology, said with the climate changing, Maryland and Baltimore County are both in for a warmer and wetter future.

“It is important to note that the impacts are here, now. While we cannot attribute any one weather event to climate change, the warmer, wetter reality is already here,” he wrote in a recent email.

State Sen. Chris West, a Republican who represents the Towson area, had proposed a bill this past legislative session that would have phased in a ban on burning coal to generate electricity in Maryland. But because the global COVID-19 pandemic caused the session to adjourn early, the bill was left “on the cutting room floor."

West said he intends to bring back similar legislation in the future.

County Councilman Wade Kach, a Cockeysville Republican who represents most of northern Baltimore County and part of the Valleys Planning Council coverage area, said he “doubts” that the climate will change in one direction and expressed some skepticism regarding the scientific consensus on climate change.

That being said, Kach, who said recently that he had not read the full report, said he endorsed certain strategies that were recommended, like working to control stormwater runoff and expanding agricultural easements in Baltimore County to preserve open space.

“I think something needs to be done. I think you need to keep up with things,” Kach said. “I think the study will be a real advantage to us, and we will have a real advantage in terms of what to expect in the future.”

Doug Carroll, who lives on farmland along the Jones Falls in Baltimore County, has described seeing his fields flood more often, trees dying off and an increasing lack of biodiversity in recent years, all at least in part attributable to climate change.
Doug Carroll, who lives on farmland along the Jones Falls in Baltimore County, has described seeing his fields flood more often, trees dying off and an increasing lack of biodiversity in recent years, all at least in part attributable to climate change.(Cody Boteler / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Baltimore County’s first chief sustainability officer, former Del. Stephen Lafferty, said the county is formulating a “climate action plan” to focus initially on making the operations of county government more sustainable. That work, he said, will include looking at reducing emissions in the county’s waste, energy and transportation sectors, though he did not have a timeline on when the action plan would be released.

“It’s about energy consumption,” Lafferty said. “How do we start consuming less?”

About 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from producing heat and electricity. Maryland generates about 34% of its electricity from two nuclear reactors and about 32% from natural gas-fired power plants. Natural gas-fired plants are “relatively” clean, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, but still produce carbon dioxide. Nuclear plants do not.

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There is broad scientific consensus that human activity is causing climate change, principally through the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that trap heat into the atmosphere. A panel of experts convened by the United Nations says human activity must change, rapidly, to reduce emissions and prevent catastrophic damage from climate change, while acknowledging that some change is already happening.

Walking around his farm one day in early March, Carroll stopped to point at flowers growing along a fence post. Purple crocuses. Some were still vibrant, but many had already reached peak bloom and were beginning to whither.

“This is definitely the earliest spring I’ve seen,” he said.

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