This winter’s freakishly warm weather has Mother Nature thoroughly confused. Flowers are blooming, birds are chirping and the magical sap from sugar maples is already flowing. Maple syrup producers from Vermont to Virginia (yes Virginia — more on that later) have tapped trees weeks ahead of normal because of sustained, record-busting heat.
In a few locations, trees were tapped in early January.
This is not necessarily a bad thing for the time being; in fact, taps across the East are reported to gushing. But if it doesn’t cool back down soon and the trees begin to bud, the season could be over.
“It’s an unusual season for sure — a really warm winter,” Gary Bilek, president of the Pennsylvania Maple Syrup Producers Council, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I’ve never had a season like this with so many long stretches of warm days in January and now in February, too.”
“There’s a lot of concern among producers statewide if this warm weather continues and brings an early end to the [sap collection] season, maybe the earliest ever,” Bilek added.
Sugar maples thrive in colder climates like New England or the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania. They require very cold winter temperatures for high-quality sap to form. Come spring, the optimal tapping conditions occur when daytime highs hover in the 40s and overnight temperatures sink to the 20s.
That’s happening way earlier than average this year.
The long-term trend threatens our favorite pancake topping, too. “New Hampshire’s maple syrup producers say they are feeling the impact of climate change, as winters become warmer and frigid nights so critical to their business become fewer,” the AP reports.
In a recent meeting attended by syrup producers, climate experts and Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), producers blamed the heat for reducing sap volumes, dropping the sugar content and, worst of all, forcing sap to the top of the trees instead of down toward the collection buckets.
The first maple syrup producers that are shut down by climate change will likely be in places such as Highland County, Va., on the southern end of the maple trees. Tucked up high in the folds of the Allegheny Mountains, Highland County is just high enough in elevation to sustain a small but productive maple syrup industry.
As of now, the sap is still abundant, so get it while its sweet.