Uh-Oh! Violets in late February?

Signs of an Unusually Early Spring in Southeastern Pennsylvania Should Not Be a Cause for Celebration

This whole winter has been anomalously warm in southeastern Pennsylvania where I live. My oil guy, Hans, is complaining that the demand for home heating oil is so low this winter that it’s killing his business, causing him to lay off workers that he had already trained.

Like everything about climate change, and this is about climate change, as numerous scientific studies like this one are demonstrating, there are short-term benefits to some of what’s happening, of course. Han’s problems aside, on my end, my heating bill this winter is the lowest it’s been in the 20 years we’ve lived here, even factoring in the relatively low cost of oil. It is, for example, even lower than it was last year when the price of oil was lower than today. And who’s going to complain about this week, when our temperatures, for a five-day stretch, have been in the mid 60 degrees to the low 70s? T-shirt weather! And no sign of a night-time frost looking out as far as 10 days from now.

I went outside yesterday, when the thermometer hit 68 in the afternoon, and pulled the pile of clear plastic that some six weeks ago I had tossed over a patch of swiss chard in my little fenced-in raised-bed vegetable garden during a stretch of colder weather when we had some nights drop into the teens, and the chard, which I had been able to nurse through this mild winter up until that colder period by just covering it lightly with one sheet of plastic at night, and exposing it during the daytime, was a lush green, with leaves rising about four inches above the ground. At this point, I don’t think I’ll have to cover the plants at night anymore as they can handle a mild frost, so at least one crop left from my last year’s garden will be up and running this year as of February.

Over-wintered swiss chard plants in the author's garden, ready to start growing again in late FebruaryOver-wintered swiss chard plants in the author’s garden, ready to start growing again in late February

On my way out of the house, my eyes were drawn to a few spots of bright blue on the ground, and looking down at a patch of overgrown weeds in a garden island in our sidewalk, I saw several blooming birds eye speedwell plants — an early flower I would still not expect to see around this region for another month.

Beside the lamppost, a whole bunch of daffodil leaves were shooting up about four inches above the ground already, again way ahead of schedule.

I decided to look around for more signs of an unusual outbreak of Spring, and was quickly rewarded by a magnolia tree full of fuzzy swollen buds that could well start to flower by week’s end and, looking up at a tall silver maple nearby, by the sight of bursting green flowers covering the small branches at the top of the tree.

In general, such signs of Spring bursting out are welcome at the end of a harsh cold winter, but the truth is, this has not been a harsh winter. We only had two snowfalls, both relatively minor, and the prospect of any more is pretty slim at this point, with no snow in the forecast for the next two weeks, and by then we’re less than two weeks away from the official start of Spring. Temperatures in the northeastern US, as in much of the country, have been setting records for winter highs which explains the plants getting an early start. It’s a continuation, as the linked article above shows, of a trend that has been underway for some years now.

Climate change deniers, a dwindling group, will no doubt start changing their tune, since the evidence of dramatic warming is getting impossible to ignore. Increasingly, their line is to ask, “So what’s wrong with things getting warmer? That means a longer growing season, lower heating bills, and no need for jackets and sweaters.”

The problem though, is that while we humans are an adaptable species, plants and the rest of the ecosystem (upon which we ultimately depend for food and for the very oxygen we breathe), aren’t really ready for this. One big threat is that those plants that pop out of the ground too soon, or that open their protective buds too early, can fall victim to another impact of climate change: the extreme warming of the Arctic and the melting away of the ice sheet over the Arctic Ocean. That warming, by reducing the gradient of hot and cold between the northern hemisphere’s arctic and temperate zones produces a wildly wobbling if weakened Jet Stream, which is wont to drop down suddenly and unpredictably for a week or so over the Lower 48, bringing with it much colder temperatures which can then kill off the early blooming plants.

Last year, this happened in the northeast, devastating the apple crop in Pennsylvania, New York and New England, where the apple blossoms were out almost four weeks early. Our two apple trees had exactly no apples last year as a result. The same thing could easily happen again this year.

But plants aren’t the only things at risk. Birds that start nesting early can end up losing their eggs if a looping segment of the Jet Stream drops down after their nests are built and the eggs are laid. I’m sure there are risks too for reptiles and amphibians if they come out of their hibernation and then get caught outside and above ground by a hard frost. In fact, while I was taking my photographic evidence of this early Spring, I heard some spring peeper frogs chirping in our little vernal pond. What will happen to them, I wonder, if a cold snap hits? The peepers are already reportedly under stress from multiple factors, from overuse of herbicides on lawns to a fungus that is killing amphibians around the globe, to increased ultraviolet light that can damage their eggs reducing the number of tadpoles produced. Where years ago there used to be so many peepers in the evening that it was hard to separate their calls, now one only hears a few peeps per minute at best.

The other thing is that many plants — and especially trees — have much slower evolutionary cycles because of their long life-spans, than do the short-lived insect pests that attack them. A combination of globalized trade and travel, which keeps introducing new pests from other continents and ecosystems that can destroy North American flora and that have no natural predators here to keep their numbers down, and climate change, which stresses the plants while leaving the fast evolving insect pests largely unscathed, explains why we’re experiencing devastating losses of various tree species all over the country — ash trees, oak trees, various types of pines, horse chestnuts, maples and others are all dying at stunning rates, which will only accelerate as the climate continues to heat up.

So here I am sitting at my desk writing this piece while the temperature at 10:30 am is already a toasty 65 degrees. I’d much rather be outside, but at the same time, I want to sound the alarm that this is NOT a good thing. Especially when we now have a government in Washington that doesn’t even care that it’s happening, and that is doing everything it can to make it happen faster.