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As the climate changes, more Vermonters rely on state climatologist

STATE CLIMATOLOGIST LESLEY-ANN Dupigny-Giroux pauses for a photo at the University of Vermont in Burlington.  Photo courtesy of UVM

BURLINGTON — In the days and months after the July floods that devastated much of Vermont, Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux’s inbox filled with requests. 

During that July storm, the skies opened, drowning some parts of Vermont with up to 9 inches of rain in 48 hours. Afterward, government officials and members of the media turned to Dupigny-Giroux, Vermont’s state climatologist, to understand the storm’s link to a globally changing climate.

In an interview with Vermont Public, she described plumes of water vapor that had risen from the Atlantic Ocean and headed west to the Green Mountains — a product of warm air temperatures. To a VTDigger reporter, she explained the role that Vermont’s mountains can play by cooling humid air to create clouds. With the Washington Post, she spoke about the odds that so many inches of rain would fall on Vermont.

In recent years, Vermonters have struggled to adapt to a climate that appears to be changing swiftly. In addition to the July storm, swings between wet weather and drought conditions have presented farmers and loggers with steep challenges. Vermonters have faced more frequent heat waves — a phenomenon that is particularly dangerous to people living outside. And haze from wildfire smoke has brought poor air quality to Vermont. 

According to the most recent Vermont Climate Assessment, a report that Dupigny-Giroux co-authored, Vermont’s climate is expected to become wetter and warmer, particularly this time of year. Winter temperatures have warmed 2.5 times more quickly than the average annual temperature since 1960, the report notes. 

Dupigny-Giroux has served as Vermont’s state climatologist for almost half that period — 27 years — all the while holding a reputation among those in her field as an uncommonly decorated scientist. During those years, the increasing urgency of climate change has cast a brighter light on Dupigny-Giroux’s role. As a result, more people in Vermont are using her work to guide their own.

“Times have just changed,” she told VTDigger. “I guess, the more that your capacity and expertise is visible, the more folks remember to pull you in.”

A CLIMATOLOGIST 

Dupigny-Giroux’s (44-page-long) resume shows her path to professorship at UVM. Born in Trinidad, her education began on the small Caribbean island, which she has said helped her foster an appreciation for geography and its relationship with history.

She went on to study physical geography at the University of Toronto, where she published her undergraduate thesis on the textural variability of the soil of a forest. 

Then, she went on to pursue her master’s degree and doctorate at McGill University. For the former, she studied climatology and hydrology, and researched the patterns of rainfall and runoff in the drainage basins of Trinidad. For the latter, she earned her doctorate in philosophy, focusing on climatology and Geographic Information Systems. 

She began lecturing at McGill in 1994 and has been teaching ever since, becoming a full professor in the University of Vermont’s Department of Geography and Geosciences in 2014. 

Before she was appointed in 2020 to the Vermont Climate Council, a body charged with recommending ways to reduce Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions, government officials tapped her as an outside reviewer to be a final set of eyes on a project. 

“I wouldn’t necessarily be part of the conversation of having it built from the get-go,” Dupigny-Giroux said. “Now, I’m in on the ground level with a lot of the conversations.”

As state lawmakers met in October to prepare for the upcoming session, which is likely to be dominated by conversations about flooding, she was there to help them put the event into context. She presented charts with colorful bubbles depicting the various risks that climate change is most likely to pose to the state: heavy precipitation, wet snowstorms, extreme heat, drought. 

“This is about lessons learned, right?” she said to members of the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee, responding to their comments about her introductory slide, which featured a large pencil. “We’re going to take you back to school here.”

She’s well positioned to be that guide. Dupigny-Giroux’s research focuses on climate variability, historical climatology, climate literacy, severe weather and systems that help people monitor climate, such as remote sensing and satellite imaging. Along with her position as a professor of climatology at the University of Vermont, she has collected a long list of accolades. 

Among them: she has co-authored each of the five National Climate Assessments as well as the 2021 Vermont Climate Assessment; spoken at the United Nations’ COP26 meeting in Glasgow, Scotland; traveled to the White House to talk about local climate solutions with President Joe Biden and served as the president of the American Association of State Climatologists from 2020 until 2022. 

Julie Moore, Natural Resources Secretary, pointed to her analysis for Vermont Emergency Management that proved critical as the state made its case to the Federal Emergency Management Agency that Vermont should be awarded aid for flooding events that caused damage beyond a discrete point in time on July 10.

“She’s this wonderful conduit for that information then, connecting the programs at (the agency) and other parts of state government,” Moore said.

Groups across Vermont, ranging from regional planning commissions to the Vermont Climate Council, have leaned on her research. 

“I don’t think people understand that. The data and information that she creates is critical to our work, to our understanding,” said Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission and a fellow member of the Vermont Climate Council. “It just establishes important baseline information for anybody who’s trying to think about, you know, what does climate change mean for Vermont?”

A DEMANDING JOB

Most state climatologists take on the role in addition to a professorship at the state’s flagship university, and it’s usually the less demanding of the two roles, Dupigny-Giroux said. For her, the position has grown in scope, particularly after her appointment to the Climate Council in 2020, a notoriously time-consuming position.

She handles the workload of the separate roles by combining them as much as possible — something that also appears to benefit her students and various Vermont officials.  

“So what I try to do is to make sure that all of the pieces — the research, all of the interactions, all of the stuff that I teach — are actually serving the same thing,” she said. 

For example, in one of her classes, which concluded at the beginning of 2023, her students worked with federal, state and local government officials to design a hazard mitigation plan for the town of Underhill. Campany, with the Windham Regional Commission, also contributed to the class, offering students a perspective on planning for climate change at the municipal level. 

“The important thing to remember here is that service and applied climatology run on relationships,” Dupigny-Giroux said at the time. 

As the state climatologist, one of her responsibilities is to create those relationships, she said. 

“How do I just make sure that resources, understanding, knowledge, research, the most cutting edge whatever, is being shared in all different directions?” she said. “Because that’s what our state climatologist is supposed to do.”

Within the Vermont Climate Council, some of that relationship building has required time and care. Conversations among council members, who come from a wide variety of backgrounds, often became tense, particularly as councilors drafted the first Climate Action Plan in 2021. The document served as a blueprint to reduce emissions for state lawmakers and agencies, but councilors disagreed about the recommended actions and even the premise that reducing greenhouse gas emissions should be the document’s primary focus. 

The council also grappled with racial equity when some councilors said that white members had tokenized and ignored councilors who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color), even though people of color are more likely to be exposed to environmental harms. Outside groups also criticized the council for failing to engage people of color in its conversations.

“The fact that all of this started during (COVID-19) means you have a different experience of working with people and getting to know people than if you had met and, you know, just had coffee and pastries, and just sort of chit chatted and hung out for a little bit,” she said. 

She worked to bring new perspectives into the conversation, drawing from her own experience and from the experiences of people she worked with through her research. 

“We don’t all have the same privilege,” she said. “And we need to respect that and try to move forward with the best science that we can, making sure that everybody can leave a particular meeting feeling appreciated and not dismissed by others who have different types of privilege.” 

SEEING THE BIG PICTURE

Moore, of the Agency of Natural Resources — the highest-ranking environmental leadership position in state government — said Dupigny-Giroux would sometimes call her after a meeting with a set of questions that would prompt Moore to think more broadly. 

“You get so into the weeds and the specific issue at hand, and she’s really good at reminding me and helping me to pull back and not lose sight of the bigger picture,” Moore said. 

She described one rare in-person meeting where the council members discussed the time commitment required to serve on the Climate Council. Many with separate full-time jobs have said it has been nearly impossible to manage the responsibilities that come with being a council member. One member, Sue Minter, suggested that councilors should only spend several hours per month doing council-related work.

Afterward, Moore sat with Dupigny-Giroux, who asked what she thought about the proposal. Moore responded that she understood that the demands and stress levels were too much for councilors to take on. 

“She led me through a conversation that ultimately helped me see: It’s not just about the impact on the individual,” Moore said. “It’s that, without creating some expectations — and then structure that manages to those expectations, in terms of how much time and effort we’re asking of people — you end up allowing the voices of the people who have the time to put into this effort to be louder and stronger than the people who don’t.”

Minter was appointed to the council because of her role as executive director of Capstone Community Action, an organization that advocates for low-income Vermonters. 

“We’re not hearing from her as loudly as we’re hearing from other voices,” Moore said. “And it’s like this self-fulfilling prophecy, almost, of continuing to marginalize some of the voices we hear from.” 

While Dupigny-Giroux’s presentations and research focus on data that describes the physical world — water, wind, heat, mountains — she almost always includes examples about the way climate touches people. 

She recognizes that an increasing number of agencies and organizations are turning to focus on environmental justice and marginalized groups, she said. 

“We have to remember that peoples are at the front of all of this,” she said.

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