Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Biologists consider the consequences of a warm winter

All across North America, the adjective that has most often been used to describe the winter we are currently experiencing is "mild." January and February which often bring the harshest winter weather with plenty of snow and ice and below-freezing temperatures have been unusually warm this year. Although there have been isolated snow storms and some periods of cold weather, they have been few and far between and of short duration.

Scientists considering the implications of these weeks of relative warmth in what is usually the coldest part of winter speculate that when all the data is collected, this winter may be close to an all-time record breaker. While a mild winter in North America is still considered a rare event, it is likely that such winters will be much less rare in the future. And that has serious consequences for plants and animals whose lives are bound to the cycle of seasons.

Plants are flowering earlier than ever and, while it is a boost to the spirits to see these bright colors in the middles of a season that is usually mostly brown, since most places in the country still have the possibility of a freeze for several weeks yet, if a freeze does occur, it could destroy those early blooms and, with them, the hope of any fruit from those blooms. This, of course, is of particular concern to farmers, horticulturalists, and home gardeners who grow fruit trees and vines. If an apple tree flowers early and then gets hit by a frost, there goes any possibility of an apple crop this year.

It's not only plants that are affected. Plants and their pollinators - bees, moths, birds, etc. - are normally in sync. The pollinators show up just as the appropriate plants are blooming and they do their jobs. But if the plants bloom early, the pollinators may or may not be there at just the right time and the job of pollination may not get done.

Moreover, animals such as birds time their breeding to occur at a time of plenty. Birds' migration patterns are related to the time of hatch of their prey insects or to the production of the particular plant on which they feed. Early warming throws all of that carefully calibrated mating dance into chaos.

Climate scientists always say that they cannot draw conclusions on the basis of one season or one weather event, but as unusual and downright freakish weather events continue to happen with increased frequency right around the world, the conclusion seems inevitable to me. The climate is warming and we are the ones who lit the fire. Of course, that won't convince the dedicated deniers who just stick their fingers in their ears and shout, "La, la, la, la, la, la!"  But denying what's happening won't stop it from happening.

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