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The Mysterious Case of the Adirondacks Sugar Maple

The trees are on the decline, but why?

(Richard Hamilton Smith/CORBIS)
smithsonian.com

Maple syrup is more than just a breakfast staple. In Canada, where more than 75 percent of the world’s maple syrup is produced, the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers effectively acts as a cartel, controlling the supply and keeping prices stable. But the tasty moneymaker might be at risk, according to a new study that says sugar maple trees in the Adirondacks are on the decline.

According to research published in the journal Ecosphere, by examining the tree rings of sugar maples in the Adirondacks scientists from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry discovered that the tree’s growth rate has steadily dropped for almost 40 years.

"Given their relatively young age and favorable competitive status in these forests, these sugar maples should be experiencing the best growth rates of their lives. It was a complete surprise to see their growth slow down like this," Daniel Bishop, who conducted the research for his master’s thesis at SUNY ESF, says in a statement. "But our data tells a clear story. We can detect the start of a region-wide downturn after 1970, with a large proportion of the trees continuing this trend over recent years."

Though the growth rate began to drop off in 1970, when sugar maples in the region were threatened by acid rain, it's unclear if pollution has caused the trees' decline. One thing is clear: The increasingly warm and wet climate in the Adirondacks should be boosting plant growth, Mary Beth Griggs reports for Popular Science.

Still, there’s no need to start stockpiling syrup just yet. The SUNY ESF study focused solely on sugar maples in the Adirondacks—and scientists haven't determined if maples in other parts of North America are also on the decline. Even if the problem spreads across northeastern United States and Canada, though, that may not necessarily mean that sugar maples will disappear, Griggs writes. More research needs to be done to know for sure.

"Time will tell if slower growth is a harbinger of something more serious for sugar maple," Dr. Colin Beier, who oversaw the SUNY ESF study, says in a statement. "But given the ecological, economic and cultural importance of this tree, the stakes could be high. We need to sort out whether these declines are more widespread, the reasons why they are occurring, and what their implications might be for our ecosystems and local economies."

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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