Vermont was seen as a climate haven. This summer has complicated that image.

Vermont was seen as a climate haven. This summer has complicated that image.
Vermont was seen as a climate haven. This summer has complicated that image.
Second Street in Barre on Wednesday, July 18, 2023 is lined with debris from last week’s flooding. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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

Porter, the executive director of a small regional forest conservation nonprofit, grew up in New England but had lived in the West for about 15 years. As Western states endure hotter, dryer summers, however, Missoula has been increasingly smothered with smoke from nearby wildfires, and Porter and his wife grew worried about the health of their young daughter.

After “two back-to-back horrific smoke seasons,” he said, the family decided to pack up and move to Montpelier.

As the world warms, Vermont has been touted as a climate refuge, a place that has drawn people — like Porter and his family — who are seeking escape from the worst effects of climate change.

But this summer has forced Vermonters to reexamine that reputation. Unrelenting rainfall — a phenomenon exacerbated by climate change, experts say — earlier this month left Vermont’s capital and other towns underwater.

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

Porter’s house was spared from the flooding. But the destruction in downtown Montpelier reminded him of that wrought in the coastal South by Hurricane Katrina, he said. And the appearance of wildfire smoke — a factor that had driven them away from Montana — was “heartbreaking,” he said.

In the 12 years since Tropical Storm Irene struck the state, “This image of Vermont being this quiet, happy refuge really kind of took over again,” Porter said. “Vermont has a lot of things going for it. But we aren’t immune to natural disasters.”

‘Vermont was the best contender’

Vermont regularly appears at the top of lists of states best poised to weather global warming. The relatively cool climate makes the state more resistant to extreme heat waves, and with no coastline, residents need not worry about rising sea levels. Abundant, year-round precipitation insulates Vermonters from drought and water shortages.

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

“There’s 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 into the state. “In their imagination, Vermont presented a safer climate with plenty of water, access to land and small community settlement.”

One such new arrival was Cymone Bedford. In 2020, Bedford moved to Vermont from Atlanta, Georgia, with the goal of building an eco-friendly home: She lives in Johnson, in an off-grid “Earthship,” a house designed for self-sufficiency and sustainability.

“I was thinking, like, where would I want to retire? Like, where would I want to live long-term, that I know if I plant roots and build community, I can comfortably stay there during climate change?” she said. “And based on my research, I felt like Vermont was the best contender.”

Bedford, a municipal planning director, did not suffer any damage personally in the recent flooding. Johnson as a whole, though, was hit hard by the rising Lamoille River: The grocery store was gutted, as were the Johnson Health Center and the town’s wastewater facility.

“Maybe some of the branding that Vermont is, you know, just like blanketly the best place for climate change will need to have some caveats,” Bedford said.

‘This summer has maybe burst the bubble’

Despite its reputation, Vermont is expected to face — or is already facing — a slew of unpleasant or dangerous phenomena linked to rising temperatures: flooding, heat waves, wildfire smoke, algae blooms, tick-borne diseases, according to Jared Ulmer, the climate and health program manager at the Vermont Department of Health.

“This summer has maybe burst the bubble a little bit in what probably was more of just a myth, of Vermont being in an ideal climate refuge,” Ulmer said.

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

As of Monday morning, Morse had received responses from 17 people. Of those, six said that their homes or property had been personally affected by the flooding.

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

“We’ve had a few days of really smoky weather, reminding us of living out West,” said the woman, who lives in northern Vermont, according to an anonymized response shared by Morse. “It’s been 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 responded to Morse’s survey said that they were happy to be living in Vermont.

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

‘You can’t buy that’

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

“In the largest sense, we’re probably safer than some other places: We’re wet, which on the whole is probably better than dry, and we’re far enough north that our worst heat waves will likely be mild compared with 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 meteorological: the state’s social cohesion. The value placed on community and cooperation, some said, helped residents weather Covid-19 and is apparent in the outpouring of support after the flooding.

“I feel like there is a localism culture in Vermont that is mutually supportive and group-oriented,” said Bedford, the Johnson resident. “And you can’t buy that. You can’t even legislate that. It’s there or it’s not.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: Vermont was seen as a climate haven. This summer has complicated that image..