Spring Swing

The Roost

[Updated, 4/2/12]

In which I praise (sort of) The Boston Globe and look ahead to my conversation with Vermont ecologist and author Amy Seidl…

Though all eyes are on the Supreme Court this week, the big news on the climate and environment front is the EPA’s announcement of its rule curbing carbon pollution from new power plants. “The move could end the construction of conventional coal-fired facilities in the United States,” writes Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post. (David Roberts over at Grist has an excellent rundown on “the top five things you need to know about EPA’s new carbon rule.”)

With all of that excitement, news readers in New England might have missed The Globe’s important (if somewhat low-key and underplayed) story by David Abel, headlined “Spring frost could doom early blooms,” about the wild swing in temperatures we’re experiencing right now, from unprecedented highs to a sudden freeze, and what it means for flowering trees and plants — and, perhaps even more important, for farms:

“This is insane,” said John O’Keefe, retired coordinator of the Fisher Museum at the Harvard Forest in Petersham.

In addition to the unfurled glory of the magnolias, trees such as red maples, aspens, and black cherries are blossoming as much as a month before the earliest recorded bloom, which was in 2010, he said.

“Everything now is progressing faster,” O’Keefe said. “It’s been a crazy spring.”

The cause is clear: the winter that wasn’t.

The lack of snow, few deep freezes, and mild temperatures that surged last week into the 80s — more than 30 degrees above normal — have wrought an array of ecological anomalies: birds flocking north faster than before, unusually high pollen counts for March, and some crops developing at a reckless pace.

The chief concern about the seemingly unprecedented timing is that a sudden plunge in temperatures into the 20s, as has been forecast for this week, could have serious consequences for trees, animals, and crops.

David (a former Globe colleague of mine, though we didn’t work closely) had an equally important front-page story last Thursday about the rising threat of forest fires this year due to our extraordinarily mild and dry winter.  Oddly, though, even as North America was experiencing an unprecedented, record-shattering early heat wave, that piece made no mention of climate change as a contributing factor. Then on Friday, The Globe ran a light-hearted piece on the front page about New Englanders’ reactions to the crazy weather — again, without ever mentioning climate change or, for that matter, asking any New England climate scientists (we do have a few in the Boston area) for their reactions. (I suppose a climate scientist doesn’t count as a “man on the street.” Note to whoever assigned that story and put it on A1: humor can be refreshing, but it might be time to start taking “the weather” a little more seriously, especially when it’s an epochal event.)

So it was good to see that David’s piece yesterday (and please read it in its entirety) highlighted — albeit near the bottom of the story — the seriousness of this extreme spring and the impact of climate not only on trees and flowers, but on agriculture and people (emphasis added):

Richard Primack, a professor of biology at Boston University who specializes on the effects of climate change on plants and animals, called the lack of cold weather and the early blooming this year “unprecedented.”

That the ground in the Boston area didn’t even freeze over this year is really unbelievable — just extraordinary,” he said.

He added that we should become accustomed to such unexpected weather — and the consequences.

“This may be an extreme year now,” he said, “but it’s predicted that this will be a fairly typical year in the coming decades.”

[John] O’Keefe said the changes in the climate are nothing less than frightening. He worries about the stresses on trees and the impact on our ability to grow food.

“Just in the past year we have experienced a range of extreme weather events that are well outside of what we have previously experienced,” he said. “That’s scary.”

As I said, this is good to see. But those last paragraphs are what I’d call burying the lede. (And the story itself ran below the fold on the Metro section front.) I have great respect for my old colleagues at The Globe, and I know how difficult their job is. But I have to say this: when they fully explore the latter points made in David’s piece — and put the results on the front page, with regularity, explaining the full ramifications for this region and its communities — I’ll know they’ve started taking climate seriously.

[Update, 4/2/12: David Abel had another front-page above-the-fold story on Saturday: “After winter drought, craving April showers: Water levels spur concerns about wildlife, fisheries, growing season.” He reports:

At a time when rivers and streams throughout the region usually crest and the soil is often saturated like a wet sponge, much of the state is bone-dry and many rivers are at record lows.

The water levels – caused by one of the driest and warmest winters on record in Massachusetts – have raised fears among state officials and environmental advocates about pervasive drought this summer and widespread failures of fish to spawn in their freshwater breeding grounds.

The piece notes that eighteen of the state’s rivers are at record-low levels, and only two out of 60 locations measured are at normal levels. Massachusetts last declared a drought in 2010, the third time in the past decade.

There is one passing mention of climate change in the story. The fourth paragraph from the bottom reads: “Those who look after local rivers say they worry that this year’s early drought is a portent of the future, as climate change makes such conditions more likely in the coming years.” That deserves a bit more exploration, to say the least. Is it really only a “portent of the future”? Or is it an impact of climate change already upon us? And what will increasingly frequent and severe droughts mean for the state, our local economies, our communities, our way of life? The EEA released a major report on climate adaptation in Massachusetts last September. Maybe someone should investigate what a serious state-wide response to the impacts of climate change would look like.]

All of this, as it happens, resonates deeply with the work of the author I’ll be speaking with later this week, Amy Seidl, a Vermont ecologist and author of the important books Early Spring: An Ecologist and Her Children Wake to a Warming World (2009) and Finding Higher Ground: Adaptation in the Age of Warming (2011), out in paperback next month.

I want to quote from Seidl’s preface to Early Spring:

While I have spent time in regions of the world where global warming is more rapidly affecting ecosystems, I want to emphasize the changes I see in my landscape close to home — in my garden, in local woods and ponds. It is in this everyday context that I notice the world entering flux. The timing of seasonal events, for instance, is shifting: lilacs are blooming earlier, gardens remain prolific well into the fall, and butterflies appear weeks earlier than previously recorded. But it is not only the natural landscapes that are shifting. In my rural community, cultural traditions tied to the season are no longer assured: ice-fishing derbies and winter carnivals, once relied upon as cold-season diversions, are on-again, off-again, and the start of maple sugaring rarely begins in early March as it historically did. As I wake to these signs, I place each onto a growing list that challenges my sense of season, cycle, and time, even my expectation of what is true.

With each year I am compelled to ask: How are the natural communities and ecosystems where I live responding to climate change? What does a thunderstorm in January signal? What about deluges in May that preclude spring planting? And the absence of ice on rivers and ponds in early winter? … As these events collect, I realize how more and more of my observations reflect the predictions that climate scientists are making for New England — greater single precipitation events, warmer nights, shorter winters, and overall more variable weather.

And this, from the opening pages of the first chapter, sounds like it could have been written in the past week (though it was published in 2009):

What will happen to the world, to us, if a season like winter all but disappears as a result of global warming? Some have proposed that as our seasons begin to radically change we are becoming deseasoned, which refers to the experience of losing or skipping over a season. As I think about this idea, I realize that there are signs that it is already happening; for example, winter is no longer the season it was a century ago. It has been replaced by a muddier version of spring, that time in March and April when it can rain or snow, be cold or suddenly warm, when even as snow falls, daffodils push up through the ground. The hard fact is we see far fewer periods of deep cold.

I’ll have more on this, in my interview with Amy Seidl about how — and whether — we can adapt to this warming world, next week.

Wen Stephenson

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