Situated between winter and spring in Ontario lies a fifth and oft forgotten season of the year, maple season (although cases could be made for a sixth and seventh – strawberry and apple seasons – depending on your inclination). This first harvest of the year, celebrated in groves of deciduous forest in Ontario, Quebec, and parts of New England, traditionally takes place as winter melts into spring. In the space between the freezing and the thawing lies the season that is maple.
When the push and pull between nightly lows of -5°c and daily highs of +5°c leave the puddles on the ground in a state of slushy confusion the conditions are perfect for maple sap to run. Only then can the first harvest of the year take place as farmers extract sap from stately sugar maples one precious drop at a time. The transmutation of the sap from the base materials of water, sugar, and trace minerals into syrupy liquid gold is alchemy of the highest agricultural order.
Do I love maple season? Yes, clearly I do. I love it enough to compose (arguably inexcusably) flowery prose in its honour. The first taste of maple sap signals the end of winter. The fleeting nature of the season and its deep roots in our heritage make us come out of hibernation en masse to watch the sap drip while dreamily savouring a taste of maple taffy on snow. The Indigenous origins of maple sugaring stretch back for untold generations and the practice is still an important part of the year for many Indigenous communities. Maple season is one of the few touchstones that still tie many of us to the cycle of the seasons.
This seasonality makes maple syrup a unique and special crop. It cannot be forced or grown in a green house. Perfect climactic conditions are required for the trees to thrive, produce sugar, and have predictable sap flow. Sugar maples are fussy trees. For all their grand height and boastful fall foliage, they are fussy about having their feet wet, or about it being too hot or too cold, and their soil must not be too compacted, acidic, or contain too many earthworms. They have evolved to thrive in a particular climate envelope with sap sugar content and flow relying heavily on climactic consistency.
So, we must now consider what happens when the climate can no longer be relied upon to provide these conditions. In our current era of ice storms, heat waves, and deep January thaws, what becomes of the tradition of trekking into the woods to tap the trees and make maple syrup? What becomes of our beloved maple season?
The truth is that we don’t really know, we have never been here before; it is uncharted territory. What we do know is that our climate is changing and that maple season relies on climate. Scientists predict that the climate envelope suitable for sugar maples could shift northwards by as much as 1000km by the year 2100, possibly ending maple syrup production in much of the United States.
We also know that regardless of whether the trees are able to survive the climactic changes in our area the impact on sugar production could vary widely from year to year. The process of photosynthesis that creates sugar in the tree is challenged by unusually hot weather during the growing season. Prolonged heat waves reduce sugar production significantly.
Prolonged thaws in early winter play havoc with the timing of sap flow, leading the sap to run before the trees are tapped. Fast springs where temperatures soar into the double digits early and stay there cause the trees to bud out early. This results in an unpleasant flavour in the sap, ending the season before good yields can be collected. These challenges are directly linked to changes in temperature. Alarmingly, they potentially lead to a host of associated problems for the trees. Weakened trees are far more susceptible to damage by invasive insects, disease, drought, and forest fire.
The question of whether the trees will survive in our area will not be answered quickly, it will take decades for us to determine how they will ultimately be affected. A more immediate question is whether the maple syrup industry and related tourism (which produced nearly $360 million in maple products in 2015) can weather the inconsistencies that will affect production.
Inconsistency is not new to maple syrup producers, maple syrup has always been a temperamental business. Sometimes inconsistency works in your favour and a booming year is the result. In fact, 2014 ranked second best for maple syrup production in the past 20 years. However, 2012 saw a 54.3% decrease in maple syrup production due to a fast spring which shortened the harvest. For the upcoming season, producers are concerned about the effects of the drought of 2016 on sap production and tree health. These unusual weather patterns and wide variations in production are becoming more common. The warmer and drier conditions that are predicted for Ontario have scientists concerned for the long-term health of the maple syrup industry and sugar maples in our region.
It is a concern that those of us who love maple season share. A trip to the sugar bush is an annual tradition that is not to be missed. If you grew up in Halton, a trip to the 150-year-old sugar bush at Mountsberg Conservation Area was probably a part of your childhood. This year, Mountsberg will need to reduce the number of sugar maples tapped in the sugar bush by 30% to preserve the health of the trees. The experience of pancakes and wagon rides and maple sugaring will continue, but the effects of the 2016 drought are an important warning sign. Climate change will have bigger ramifications for us as a species certainly, but a threat to maple season is something that hits right in the heart. It cannot be allowed to happen unchallenged.
With that in mind, your task (the same task that we put to high school students helping us monitor change in the sugar bush at Mountsberg) is to give up one carbon heavy activity for maple season. From February 25 until April 2, 2017, can you commit to changing one habit that contributes to climate change? Anything that reduces your use of fossil fuels or electricity or the creation of waste would be a great place to start. Visit https://www.ontario.ca/page/how-you-can-help-fight-climate-change for a list of ideas that could work for you….then try to get a few others onboard. Chances are they will want to save maple season too, especially if you sweeten the pot with a trip to your local sugar bush for pancakes with fresh maple syrup.
Through new production methods and development of more resilient tree stock, maple syrup producers may be able to mitigate the effects of climate change. However, with our help the effects could be so much less severe. So put on some extra socks and cram your feet into your most waterproof boots and get out to a sugar bush. Enjoy maple season, celebrate it, taste its wares, and then get on with the business of saving it, because by saving maple we will save so much more.
- Ontario Maple Syrup Production Report
- Global Warming Pushes Maple Syrup, Trees to the Brink
- Statistical Overview of the Canadian Maple Industry
- Brown, L. J., Lamhonwah, D. and Murphy, B. L. (2015), Projecting a spatial shift of Ontario’s sugar maple habitat in response to climate change: A GIS approach. The Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe canadien, 59: 369–381. doi: 10.1111/cag.12197
Last modified: January 26, 2017