Vermont was seen as a climate paradise. This summer has complicated that picture. – VTDigger

A man in a plaid shirt standing on a street.
Zack Porter at the intersection of Main Street and State Street in Montpelier on Wednesday, July 18, 2023. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

In 2018, Zack Porter moved from Missoula, Montana to Vermont.

Porter, executive director of a small regional forest conservation nonprofit, grew up in New England but lived out West for about 15 years. As western states endure hotter, drier summers, however, Missoula has been increasingly choking on smoke from nearby wildfires, and Porter and his wife have become concerned for their young daughter’s health.

After two awful back-to-back smoking seasons, she said, the family decided to pack up and move to Montpelier.

As the world warms, Vermont has been touted as a climate haven, a place that has drawn people like Porter and his family looking for an escape from the worst effects of climate change.

But this summer forced the Vermonters to re-examine that reputation. Relentless rainfall, a phenomenon exacerbated by climate change, experts said earlier this month, has left the Vermont capital and other cities underwater.

Before that, in late June, some parts of the state were experiencing a moderate drought, according to the US Drought Monitor. Meanwhile, smoke from the Quebec wildfires has periodically drifted into the state, setting off air quality alarms. And blooms of toxic cyanobacteria, which are linked to warmer water temperatures, have repeatedly closed beaches along Lake Champlain and have been detected in other bodies of water, according to data from the Vermont Department of Health.

Porter’s house was spared from flooding. But the destruction in downtown Montpelier reminded him of that wrought on the south coast by Hurricane Katrina, he said. And the appearance of smoke from the wildfires, a factor that had driven them away from Montana, was heartbreaking, he said.

In the 12 years since Tropical Storm Irene hit the state, “This image of Vermont as a peaceful, happy haven has really taken over,” Porter said. Vermont has lots to do. But we are not immune to natural disasters.

a white van driving down a road surrounded by trees.
A vehicle cuts through the hazy air on Browns Trace in Jericho on Sunday, June 25, 2023. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Vermont was the top contender

Vermont regularly appears at the top of lists of states most ready to resist global warming. The relatively cool climate makes the state more resilient to extreme heatwaves, and with no coast, residents don’t have to worry about sea level rise. Abundant rainfall throughout the year insulates Vermont from drought and water shortages.

Many recent arrivals, like Porter, have cited climate change as the reason for their relocation, according to Cheryl Morse, a professor of environmental studies and geography and geosciences at the University of Vermont.

There is a belief that Vermont will have enough water most of the time, that it will have a more temperate climate in terms of weather, in terms of temperature, said Morse, who has studied migration in the state. “In their imaginations, Vermont presented a safer climate with plenty of water, access to land, and small community settlements.

One of these new arrivals was Cymone Bedford. In 2020, Bedford moved to Vermont from Atlanta, Georgia with the goal of building a green home: She lives in Johnson, in an off-grid Earthship, a home designed for self-sufficiency and sustainability.

I was thinking, like, where would I like to retire? For example, where would I like to live long-term, that I know if I put down roots and build a community, can I comfortably stay there during climate change? she said. And based on my research, it seemed to me that Vermont was a top contender.

Bedford, a municipal planning director, did not personally suffer any damage during the recent flood. Johnson as a whole, however, was hit hard by the rising Lamoille River: The grocery store was gutted, as were Johnson Health Center and the city’s wastewater plant.

Maybe part of the brand that Vermont is, you know, just like the best place for climate change will have to come with some caveats, Bedford said.

Zack Porter, who moved to Vermont from Montana, seen in the North Branch of the Winooski River in Montpelier on Thursday, September 12, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

This summer has perhaps burst the bubble

Despite its reputation, Vermont faces or is facing a number of unpleasant or dangerous phenomena related to rising temperatures: floods, heat waves, wildfire smoke, algae blooms, tick-borne diseases, according to Jared Ulmer, climate and health program director at the Vermont Department of Health.

This summer has perhaps burst the bubble a bit in what was probably more of a myth, of Vermont being in an ideal climate haven, Ulmer said.

This week, Morse, the UVM professor, sent out a survey to about 25 Vermont newcomers who had previously participated in her research, asking if the flooding or smoke from the wildfires had caused them to reconsider their move.

As of Monday morning, Morse had received replies from 17 people. Of these, six said their homes or properties were personally affected by the flooding.

But only one respondent said the recent weather had caused her to question her move to Vermont.

We’ve had a few days of really hazy weather, reminding us of living out West, said the woman, who lives in northern Vermont, according to an anonymous response shared by Morse. It was disappointing, we put a lot of time, effort and money into our move to VT with the hopes of getting away from some of these recent weather events.

Every other person who answered the Morses survey said they were happy to live in Vermont.

It’s disappointing to have such a strange summer of rain and smoky air, but we also recognize how awful it is in many other places, said a Chittenden County man. Vermont remains beautiful through it all and we will recover better than some areas.

A sign warns beachgoers to stay out of the water at Burlington’s Blanchard Beach on Lake Champlain. File photo of Clare Cuddy

You can’t buy it

Most people VTDigger polled, including relatively recent arrivals Bedford and Porter, agree that Vermont is still in a better position than most other states.

In the broadest sense, we’re probably safer than other places: We’re wet, which overall is probably better than dry, and we’re far enough north that our worst heatwaves will likely be mild compared to some, Bill McKibben, an activist and Middlebury environmental studies professor, said in an email earlier this month.

When it comes to weathering natural disasters, many argue that Vermont’s best feature is more cultural than weather: the state’s social cohesion. The value placed on community and cooperation has, some say, helped residents overcome Covid-19 and is evident in the outpouring of support after the floods.

I feel like there is a culture of localism in Vermont that is mutually supportive and group-oriented, said Bedford, the Johnson resident. And you can’t buy it. You can’t even legislate on this. There is or there isn’t.

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