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N.H. Summer Weather Swings Strain Ecosystems And Animals

A salamander sits on top of a paper towel, out in the wild.
Maddy Cochrane
N.H. salamanders have quickly gone from not having enough water to breathe to just the opposite.

New Hampshire is experiencing some summer weather whiplash. One of the wettest-ever starts to July follows one of the hottest and driest recorded Junes. The precipitation significantly lessens the state’s drought.Get NHPR stories about climate change delivered to your inbox. Sign up for our newsletter today.

"We could very well end up with [a] near-top record wet month," says National Weather Service meteorologist Derek Schroeter. Scientists say climate change is driving more of this volatile weather and an overall increase in precipitation in the Northeast. 

These extremes are also a strain for ecosystems and animals and the people who study them.

The Amphibians

Maddy Cochrane is a PhD student studying how salamanders living in streams at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in Thornton are adapting to this volatility in the weather. 

Cochrane says the amphibians are a key part of the food chain and an indicator of the health of the forest. They went from struggling to stay wet enough to breathe a few weeks ago to just the opposite. 

“We’ve been struggling to find salamanders the last couple of days, just because the water has been so high," Cochrane said. "They really kind of hunker down, I think to try to avoid getting swept downstream.” 

Cochrane says drought and extremes appear to hurt salamander population outcomes.

She says Hubbard Brook's 50-plus-year data record shows stream levels fluctuating more over time while rising overall. 

The Birds

Joey Negreann leads a team doing an annual summer songbird count in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. Their decades-long research streak was interrupted last year, for the first time, because of COVID-19. Now, whiplash weather conditions are getting in the way.  

"We're glad we're running a crew this year, just a little frustrated with the rain, for sure," Negreann said. 

His team can't work in high heat or heavy rain, conditions which also make their target warblers less active. But he says the birds are adaptable and can endure short-term extremes.

The Drought

The area of the state where conditions are dry has decreased by about 30%, according to the National Drought Monitor's weekly update.  

There are now no signs of drought in Cheshire, Hillsborough, Merrimack and Rockingham counties, thanks to sustained rainfall, coming almost daily since the start of July., There’s been more than seven  inches so far, about five  more than normal. 

Schroeter says the wet weather is expected to continue as well as cooler temperatures. Concord had its coldest high for July 3 ever this year:  59 degrees, beating the 1914 record of 61. 

A few days before, Concord had its warmest-ever daily low for June 30 -- 74 degrees. The record was 72, in 1880. The capital city also set a daily warm low record on June 8. 

The hot, dry June capped off drought conditions stretching back more than a year. Coos County and most of Grafton County remain in moderate to severe drought. The central band of the state is rated abnormally dry. 

Nearly 90 local water systems still have limits in place on outdoor water use, and the state Department of Environmental Services (DES) says aquifers remain stressed from the inconsistent rain.

"Due to the growing season and warm summer temperatures, most rain received goes to plants and evaporation or runoff," DES wrote in their weekly drought update. "Significant groundwater recharge will not occur until the fall." 

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.

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