Too early spring


The book that triggered the environmental movement in America was Silent Spring, published by Rachel Carson in 1962. The subject of the book was the indiscriminate use of pesticides such as DDT — which was banned by the federal government a few years later, in part a result of the outcry that Carson had raised. The title refers to the fact that flagrant abuse of these chemicals was killing not just insects but some of the floral glory of springtime. I was thinking of that book when the New York Times published a fascinating short piece tonight on climate change and the impact it’s been having on the life cycle of plants and trees in the continental United States. Were you to publish the article in a book format, it might be called (in an ode to an earlier famous short story) Too Early Spring.

Simply put, the unusually warm winter that we’ve been enjoying — despite the knowledge that these balmy days are the result of global warming — have caused signs of spring to start breaking out freakishly early across most of the nation, even as the official start of spring is still two weeks away. The early buds and the morning chirping of birds outside our window may be pleasurable — but the long-term effects are not good:

An early spring means more than just earlier blooms of fruit trees and decorative shrubs like azaleas. It can wreak havoc on schedules that farmers follow for planting and that tourism officials follow for events that are tied to a natural activity like trees blooming. Some plant species that bud early may be susceptible to a snap frost later, and early growth of grasses and other vegetation can disrupt some animals’ usual cycles of spring feeding and growth.

First leaf can vary greatly from year to year and location to location, but the general long-term trend is toward earlier springs.

The new research shows a strong link between global warming and the very warm February that helped to drive the extremely early spring this year. For the entire continental United States, February 2017 was the second warmest on record, and mean temperatures were especially high east of the Rockies: as much as 11 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.

The study, by scientists working as part of a group called World Weather Attribution, looked at the influence of climate change on the temperatures, using models of the atmosphere as it exists and of a hypothetical atmosphere with no greenhouse gas emissions and thus no human-driven climate change. They found that a warm February like the one just experienced is about four times more likely in the current climate than it would have been in 1900, before significant emissions began to change the climate.

The Times article is illustrated with a couple of maps showing how dramatic the changes have been. Meanwhile, New York Magazine looks more deeply at why the earlier arrival of spring is no cause for celebration:

So that unusually hot February is really just a pleasant moment in a pattern that will likely feel much less agreeable in, say, August 2050. “While these earlier springs might not seem like a big deal — and who among us doesn’t appreciate a balmy day or a break in dreary winter weather — it poses significant challenges for planning and managing important issues that affect our economy and our society,” explained Dr. Jake Weltzin, a USGS ecologist and the executive director of the USA National Phenology Network, in a release about these maps. It complicates growing season for farmers. It is very bad for allergy sufferers. It throws ecosystems severely out of whack, as the Atlantic explains:

These kinds of mismatches can upset complex relationships between animals and their environment. In the Arctic, some grasses bloom a month before normal, depriving hibernating animals of a crucial early-spring food source. Snowshoe hares turn white during the winter, and then brown during the summer, so that they can be better camouflaged against the ground. But now that snow is melting earlier in the year, many are still wearing their white coats in the spring mud—making them especially easy for predators to pick off.

File this away mentally with the abnormal weather in Antarctica, where large ice sheets are breaking off, or about to, and with  the warm bathtub winter temperatures we’ve experienced in the Gulf of Mexico. When you step outside and hear the songbirds in February, it’s Mother Nature’s warning that it’s way past time to take drastic action on our climate.

Read more about this year’s unusually early spring blossoms from the New York Times:

Here’s New York Magazine on the early spring:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2017 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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