Jill Laidlaw has worked at Camp Cavell in Lexington, Michigan, a tiny paradise on Lake Huron, for 37 years. But she saw problems in paradise: climate change.
Michigan temperatures have risen an average of two to three degrees over the past century, and Ms. Laidlaw said she saw the effects of this warming in a variety of ways, from hotter days and warmer nights to more intense rainstorms and damaging algal bloom lakes in the area and a tick explosion. And increasingly frequent bans on any kind of burns have even curtailed one of the most popular aspects of summer camp, she said: “We’ve had ‘flashlight campfires’ for the past few summers.”
Climate change, which affects many aspects of children’s lives, is also turning the camp experience on its head. After more than a year of pandemic isolation and disrupted school and social life, the 26 million children who normally attend day and sleep camps are ready to experience summer fun again. But carers for many of these camps say the effects of climate change – not to mention the ongoing coronavirus precautions many camps are dealing with – are making it harder to deliver the carefree experiences of past generations.
Rising temperatures, forest fire smoke, changing biodiversity and more all bring risks, and camps struggle to adapt. And during deadly heat waves, like in the Pacific Northwest, dealing with extreme heat becomes a necessity to keep campers safe.
Braving the heat has long been part of what camp camps are all about, and although the relationship between individual weather events and climate change is different, the effects of global warming are felt in many ways.
“The reality is, yes, they have more high temperature days and generally more heat waves and other effects,” said Donald J. Wuebbles, professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois. “When it rains it is more likely that it will rain harder, and when we get a drought it is more likely that there will be a major drought,” he said.
When a heat dome trapped citizens of the Pacific Northwest at record-breaking temperatures that led to a spike in heat-related deaths over the past week, the directors of Camp Killoqua in Stanwood, Washington made a decision: to postpone the start of their day at camp. The heat – made even less bearable by the state’s coronavirus requirement that campers wear masks – forced her hand.
“We realized that our campers would be too miserable to be here,” said Cassie Anderson, a camp director. “We just didn’t want to put our children at risk of getting sick.” The pause, however, was short; within a day, things had cooled enough that Killoqua reopened.
At Camp Sealth on Vachon Island in Puget Sound near Seattle, summer camp director Carrie Lawson said the effects of climate change were evident. “This year, a fire ban was issued in our district before the end of June, the earliest thing I have ever experienced.”
The link between forest fires and climate change is strong: the warming planet makes areas like the American West hotter and drier, with longer forest fire seasons; last year was the worst season for fire activity in California, Washington, and Oregon.
Dave Jarvis, of Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp in Hillside, Colorado, said forest fires had forced him to evacuate his campers twice in the past five years – once on the day of filing when parents said goodbye to their children. A nearby camp was able to accommodate its campers both times, but the 2011 fire kept everyone off the Rainbow Trail for five weeks.
And Ms. Lawson said that for two of the past three years “our region has been shrouded in smoke from forest fires, making it unhealthy or even dangerous to be outdoors.”
When asked how the ban on burning and campfires with flashlights affected storage traditions like s’mores-making, Ms. Laidlaw of Michigan responded with an email that contained only a single picture: a glass of marshmallow fluff.
Not only have the storage days changed; Due to climate change, the nights are no longer cooling down as much. Valerie Wright, executive director of House in the Wood Camp in southeast Wisconsin, said fans were enough early on the night to cool both cabins and RVs. “About 10 years ago we realized that this was no longer the case,” and they installed air conditioning in the huts, which after a “particularly brutal summer” significantly increased storage costs.
Unpredictable conditions have become a part of life for Julie Kroll of Camp Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp and Retreat Center in Fort Valley, Virginia. She has studied the likely effects of climate change on her facilities and her best scenario has been to take expensive measures which include installing air conditioning, increasing insulation and replacing windows to cope with the increase in extreme weather conditions such as floods, blizzards, microbursts Combat storms and derechos are worsening, ”she wrote in an email.
In an interview, she added that she had reviewed decades of camp records of backpacking, canoeing, and camp-outs and found that climate change and urban sprawl were worrying. Water sources “that were reliable in the 1990s, that are no longer reliable or that no longer exist,” she said, and “river levels are no longer constant”.
The coasts are also affected. Fox Island Environmental Education Center, a Virginia institution that has been run by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for more than 40 years, closed in 2019 because soil erosion and sea level rise destroyed so much of the island’s salt marshes that their owners left them declared unsafe.
Recent surveys show that young people are far more likely to accept the science of climate change than older generations, and so they take the class. Today’s youth are aware of the heat and health, said Janice Kerber, director of Florida Everglades Youth Conservation Camp; They carry water bottles and use sunscreen. Ms. Kerber, who grew up in Florida, said sunscreen was rare when she was a girl.
She has been involved with the camp since 1996 and said, “There was a marked difference in how much hotter it was.” At the end of the 1990s, a heat index of 105 was highly unlikely. Today, a “115 heat index is not uncommon”.
Last year, the coronavirus pandemic cut camp registrations from 26 million to 19.5 million, said Kyle Winkel of the American Camp Association. At the start of this year’s season, camp leaders and supervisors will employ a variety of techniques that have been refined over the years to deal with high temperatures.
At Camp Longhorn, outside of Burnet, Texas, Camp general manager Bill Robertson quoted the late Tex Robertson as quoting the founder and his father.
“It’s not hot – it’s summer!” He said with a knowing smile.
Camp Longhorn has always had to do with high temperatures, because despite the proximity of the cool breezes from Inks Lake, the thermometer can rise well over 100 degrees. A warming planet simply means paying more attention to the things they’ve been doing all along, he said, citing practices and traditions established by his father’s generation.
Longhorn employees keep campers out of the sun between 1 and 4 p.m. And Mr. Robertson says he looks for signs that it is too hot for rigorous outdoor play, such as “when the children aren’t smiling or running to their activities.”
Water is everywhere. Sprinklers spray the grass and campers, and lots of activities take place in the lake. Even before the ubiquitous water bottles, the camp built a multi-tap water fountain that delivered a refreshing but hard-to-control bang known as “old face-full”.
Many camps turn their climate problems into a learning opportunity – part of their mission to connect children with nature. “Since our beginnings in the 1950s, we’ve tried to educate children and adults about nature and our environment,” said Ms. Kroll in Virginia. Ms. Laidlaw of the Michigan camp also said she was teaching campers about climate change, adding that she was tired of the politicized arguments about the science of a warming planet.
For those who would argue against the evidence, she has a suggestion: “Get out into nature and see the changes.”