By Alan Bisbort
11:35 AM PST, January 2, 2013
Seasons of Change: Global Warming in Your Backyard
at Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History through Feb. 24, 170 Whitney Ave., New Haven, (203) 432-5050, peabody.yale.edu
The sign above a suggestion box just inside "Seasons of Change: Global Warming in Your Backyard" — a new exhibition at Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History — implores, "What will you miss the most?"
Though you may not feel at a loss when you arrive, you will by the time you exit "Seasons of Change," a traveling exhibition created in conjunction with Brown University and the New England Science Center Collaborative. Simply by asking you to look out your own window, the exhibition puts to rest any lingering doubts about the reality of climate change. And so, on your way out, you write what you will most miss on a slip of paper and put it in the slot.
Things are undoubtedly disappearing. Things we take for granted, things we can see in our own backyards: blueberries, cranberries and Concord grapes are dwindling, migratory birds are losing habitat and passing into oblivion, cows are producing less milk; in the oceans (due to rising water temperatures), lobster, cod, oysters and scallops are smaller in size and number. Even the snow is disappearing, replaced by more rain. The very things that symbolize New England, sugar maple trees and brilliant autumn foliage, are both on the wane. Meanwhile, other things, unwelcome things, are on the rise: asthma, allergies, poison ivy, kudzu, seasonal floods, seasonal droughts, frequency and severity of storms.
The Peabody is trying its damnedest to put a positive spin on these inconvenient truths — partly because the exhibition, with its numerous interactive opportunities, computer games, videos and specimens, is geared to younger audiences (it's "family-friendly"!). Like the previous "family-friendly" exhibition that occupied this first-floor gallery space ("Big Food"), "Seasons of Change" is not intended to bum you out, though the facts it shares have the potential to induce despair, at least in adults. Rather, it aims to pull the blinders aside so visitors can see that global warming is not an abstract concept that keeps only Bill McKibben awake nights. It is not something that may have some impacts at some future date. No, it is here and now and as close as your own backyard.
Take the amazing story told by a sugar maple "cookie" on display here. The "cookie" is the cutaway from the trunk of a 200-year-old sugar maple that took root in Vermont in 1805, just before the "Year Without a Summer" (when no day in 365 was above 32 degrees). You can "read" in this cookie the history of these centuries — the crop failures, periods of growth and drought, the number of times the tree was tapped for its sap. The larger story it tells is that the days of the maples in New England — and, thus, the maple sugar industry — are numbered. Fewer seeds will sprout and germinate and those saplings that do live will not reach 100 years. They will gradually be overtaken by oaks as the temperatures rise only a few degrees.
Augmenting this tale of the cookie is the vivid evidence of climate change provided by the annual records of a New Hampshire sugar house for the past several decades. From these, it's clear that the seasons are changing, spring comes sooner and winter later and temperatures are rising, tapping seasons are shorter, and less sap is gathered. It's not a fluke of a bad year or two, but a decided downward trend.
To appeal to the generation raised only on the Internet, "Seasons of Change" offers computer simulations by which visitors can chart storm surges at various places along the New England coast over the coming decades, and even put Boston underwater by creatively utilizing Google Earth imagery. One simply calculates what will be underwater as the sea levels rise even a few inches (you'd be surprised how much difference even an inch or two makes). Faneuil Hall will have beachfront access…
In the background, you can hear the children happily playing on the computer simulations as you exit into the Peabody's hall of dinosaurs. This provides a perhaps unintended coda to "Seasons of Change": Is Homo sapiens going the way of the dinosaurs?