Earth Out of Sync: Rising Temperatures Throw Off Seasonal Timing

Global average temperatures continue to rise, affecting key life cycle events such as blossoming, migration and mating. Janet Larsen, director of research for the Earth Policy Institute, looks at how the changing temperatures and seasons are causing problems for plants and animals.

| April 2, 2010

  • Canada goose
    Milder winters have prompted growing numbers of some birds, such as the Canada goose, to skip migration altogether. The birds that don’t migrate are in danger of being wiped out by a sudden cold spell.

  • Canada goose

A newly hatched chick waits with hungry mouth agape for a parent to deliver its first meal. A crocus peaks up through the snow. Rivers flow swiftly as ice breaks up and snows melt. Sleepy mammals emerge from hibernation, and early frog songs penetrate the night.

Spring awakening has long provided fodder for poets, artists and almanac writers. Even for a notoriously fickle time of sunshine, rain and temperature swings, some old-fashioned seasonal wisdom was consistent enough to be passed down through generations. The first blooming of a specific flower, for example, could traditionally signal when to find certain fish running the rivers, when to hunt for mushrooms, or when to plant crops. The timing of such seasonal events is coordinated in an intricate dance — a dance underappreciated, perhaps, until something jolts it out of step.

With global average temperatures up 0.5 degrees Celsius since the 1970s, springtime warming is coming earlier across the Earth’s temperate regions. A number of organisms have responded to the warming temperatures by altering the timing of key life cycle events. The problem, however, is that not all species are adjusting at the same rate or in the same direction, thus disrupting the dance that connects predator and prey, butterfly and blossom, fish and phytoplankton, and the entire web of life.

The timing of seasonal biological events, otherwise known as phenology, has been tracked in some places for centuries. Japan’s much-feted cherry tree blossoming has been carefully recorded since before 1400. The trees showed no clear trend in timing until the early 20th century, when they began to bloom earlier, with a marked advancement since around 1950.

The meticulous records of Henry David Thoreau help us gauge how spring has changed in Concord, Mass., since the mid-1800s. Comparing his notes on over 500 species and subspecies of plants with modern surveys and records in between, researchers found that springtime blooming advanced by an average of one week over the past 150 years as local springtime temperatures rose.

The plant varieties that advanced their timing appear to have thrived over the years, while others declined in numbers. The varieties left behind include asters, mints, orchids, lilies and violets. Some native plants advanced their blossoming dramatically: the highbush blueberry by three weeks and the yellow wood sorrel herb by a month. Yet these native plants may be the exception rather than the rule. On average, non-native invasive plants advanced their bloom by 11 days more than natives. With exotic invasives appearing to adapt more quickly to warming temperatures, the concern is that they could outcompete some native plants, leading to their disappearance.

6/10/2010 3:27:51 PM

It's amazing that so many people continue to insist that global warming is a myth, hoax, or a conspiracy. What would be the point of that? Change is hard, but is required by the reality of global warming. Why would so many people "conspire" to perpetuate a "hoax" that only makes life harder? It's not money. Except Al Gore, almost no one is getting rich off of global warming. Conversely, those currently in power and money with the way things are (oil and car companies e.g.), have quite a lot of motivation to call valid science "just a theory." And then everybody who simply doesn't want to have to pay more for gas, or use less electricity, or eat more locally, etc., jumps on board calling it a "myth," or "hoax." But a "religion?" Seriously? (warning, sarcasm follows) Yeah, sure, global warming is a religion. With no deity, no churchs, no clergy, no theology, and no mysteries. Some "religion." (this concludes the sarcasm for this comment) It's also truly amazing that the same tired excuses continue to be trotted out to supposedly argue against global warming. "But what about the Ice Age?" "But temperature has always fluctuated!" "But humankind can't have any significant impact!" "But the Earth is cooling!" All of which show pretty much zero understanding of the science involved, and of Earth science in general. And Ray, "Google the e-mails from England and PA?!" Those places aren't even mentioned here. Do you have any idea what you're talking about? Any?

6/7/2010 9:05:07 PM

We are bee keepers in CA and we have noticed that bee swarming season has been greatly effected by the changes in our weather. While this article says that the weather is warming we have had very cold spells this spring. It will warm for a day or so and then be below freezing or very cold for a few days. This dramatic fluxuation is very hard on a swarm. A swarm has three days to find a home before they die. If they find one they do not have the food to survive a cold spell. For bees that are rescued by beekeepers we can adjust by feeding them so they can at least survive but it still takes its toll. I have spoken with several bee keepers in our area and none of their hives have their normal storage of honey for this time of year. We will have to watch them because they may not be able to survive the winter if they don't have enough to stay strong and eat throughout the winter. Not to mention the human effect of paying more for honey due to shortage. So whether the trend is cooling or warming or it is all a hoax, animals are being effected by the erradict weather conditions whatever you believe the causes are. Thank you for this article.

6/7/2010 5:09:35 PM

The fact is we WERE headed towards an ice age, but humans dumping greenhouse gasses have not only halted the coming ice age, but has reversed it!

Mother Earth News Fair Schedule 2019


Next: April, 27-28 2019
Asheville, NC

Whether you want to learn how to grow and raise your own food, build your own root cellar, or create a green dream home, come out and learn everything you need to know — and then some!


Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 64% Off the Cover Price

Money-Saving Tips in Every Issue!

Mother Earth NewsAt MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet's natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. You'll find tips for slashing heating bills, growing fresh, natural produce at home, and more. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.95 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.95 for 6 issues.

Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
International Subscribers - Click Here
Canadian subscriptions: 1 year (includes postage & GST).

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter flipboard

Free Product Information Classifieds Newsletters