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.


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!

6/7/2010 11:08:30 AM

Thank you for this article. It's unfortunate that there's so much corporate-funded propaganda out there masquerading as fact or news. Apparently, that has quite an effect on critical thinking abilities. This is the sort of information that those of us who've been living the "Mother Earth" life for years can add to with our local documentation. As climate changes more drastically, we'll need shared solutions just as drastically. Again, thank you.

6/7/2010 9:14:52 AM

This is a great site, so why do you include articles like this? Run a Google check on the emails out of England and PA, they knew the "data" was false, and even said they would delete it all before the admitted it. Global warming is a religion. Believe in it if you like, just don't call it science.

6/7/2010 8:31:08 AM

Temperatures are NOT rising; it is very well documented that it is cooling. Temperatures fluxuate and will continue to fluxuate. This is an article to push her agenda. People are starting to realize the Climate "Hoax" documented recently and are opening their eyes. Only if we can reach our children and stand against the schools to educate our children correctly instead of perpetuating the "hoax." We need to be good stewards of our environment, but do it with common sense.

rick m_2
6/7/2010 8:10:45 AM

I find so hilarious, is the delusion of well documented. We the people have so many conflicting theories and beliefs with everything in this world. If this "Theory" is true, how do you explain the last ice age? The loss of the huge dinosaurs? and all of the species that were extinct BEFORE man came the dominant common denominator? Crap stories like this only propagate one side of story. Global climate changes have occurred for millenniums, without human contribution. This global farce is all about the money and economics associated with it. Have you even looked at the TRILLIONS of dollars involved? Wouldn't you feel even more betrayed if in the future you discover that the "HUMAN" contribution was less than 5% of the change? If you print stories like this, I would think that you could give alternate theories an opportunity to publish their works. I am a true believer in conservation, but this goes WAY BEYOND common sense and stupidity. Oh, but the way, how'd you like that pandemic/epidemic swine flu kill last year?

fran tracy
6/7/2010 7:38:42 AM

The temperature has always fluxuated and it will continue to fluxuate. The theory that man can affect it with his actions is not reasonasble. The dust and ash put off by the volcano in Greenland or Iceland is putting more polution in the astmosphere than all the greenhouse gasses man makes. Using resources wisely makes sense but the millions of dollars a few people like Al Gore has made is outrageous. we need to let people make a good living and not regulate so it makes it impossible to afford gas or heat our houses. Fran

4/5/2010 5:51:32 PM

1) We'll have to wait for history to tell us whether it's ridiculous or not. Personally, I'd feel more ridiculous if man-made climate change turned out to be real and we had not acted than if it turns out not to be real once we have. 2) The singular of species is, well, species. Kinda like fish or deer. Sorry-- I never get to use the cotton-pickin' English degree for anything else. 3) While we worry about climate change, Bildebergers, and the nefarious plots of the New World Order, the existing world order bilks us out of whatever wealth we might have had and pats themselves on the back while they watch us argue over who's to blame for what. You know, when we should be deciding what to do in the absense of any real leadership. 4) Why are we even worried about it???? Magnetic shift is going to kill most of us anyway, thereby solving the problem.

4/4/2010 9:59:00 AM

Hardly ridiculous. This phenomena is well documented by Science. Thank you for posting this. I'd been reading about particular species here and there--one specie at a time. This is the first time I've seen so many compiled together. Still, nobody likes to hear bad news. We're fighting human nature to plug one's ears when hearing something one doesn't like.

doug cresse_2
4/4/2010 5:41:00 AM

This is a great website Why do you print such ridiculous articles as this?

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