Snow on the first day of spring? The season's clock is irreparably broken | Opinion

Flowers in snow-20032018-0001
A February warm spell encouraged these crocuses to bloom. When nor’easter hit the Philadelphia area in early March, the flowers were covered in snow.

At 12:15 on Tuesday afternoon, a vertical shaft of sunlight struck the equator, and, though snow was still a part of the forecast, spring finally arrived.

Actually, a radically altered version of spring arrived. Remember, only last month temperatures almost hit a balmy 80 degrees; at my nature center in Upper Roxborough, tadpoles and turtles had already emerged from hibernation, the first flowers had started blooming, and red maples were budding out — it seemed spring was here in February.

Then winter reasserted its muscle, battering us with those blasted rounds of nor’easters. Turns out those nor’easters were ironically fueled by record high temperatures in the Arctic, where, still sheathed in darkness, the mercury had stubbornly stayed above freezing, glaciers melting in an Arctic winter, a historic first.

Welcome to spring, or rather, the new, abnormal version of spring, as climate change has completely upended spring’s apple cart, and the elegant, once-predictable parade of flowers opening, birds migrating north, and creatures emerging from long winter naps is likely permanently altered.

One study found that spring starts about 2.3 days earlier every decadehistorical records indicate that Washington’s famed cherry trees now blossom five days earlier than in the 1920s. The National Park Service recently examined 276 parks to learn that spring leaf-out, when the majority of buds in a forest have opened and leaves have begun to pop, arrives one week early in Kansas City, two weeks early in Denver, but a full four to five weeks early in the Pacific Northwest.

In the Arctic, the epicenter of climate change, spring arrives 16 days earlier than it did only a decade ago. One Greenland plant has started growing 26 days earlier than it did only 10 years ago.

Nineteenth-century writer-naturalist Henry David Thoreau walked his Concord, Mass., environs meticulously recording the doings of plants and animals, records that have proved invaluable in climate studies. While blueberries blossom roughly three weeks earlier than in Thoreau’s time, a very warm 2012 saw the bushes bloom a full six weeks early.

So while the weather is erratic, the trend is clear: Spring inches earlier every year. But so what?

Spring nor’easters are a hassle for us, but they are potentially fatal to the living things that share our world. Migrating animals have evolved to time their travels to arrive north when the plants they need blossom, or when the insects they devour emerge. Flowers evolved over millennia to open when their pollinators awaken. Birds nest and lay eggs counting on finding food to stuff down their nestlings’ throats. If flowers cannot find pollinators, if parent birds cannot find the appropriate food, they suffer.

Currently, spring’s clock is irreparably broken, the numbers torn off nature’s clock face and randomly glued back on in no order. Spring’s parade of life is confused: no one knows when to march.

And no one knows the cost. Which species will survive the new abnormal? And which will succumb? Welcome also to the great shakeout.

For me, inveterate naturalist I am, I walk my center’s forest looking for bloodroot, an early spring wildflower, to blossom. For phoebes, flying-insect-eating birds that are among the first returning migrants, to magically appear, singing their throaty call. For mourning cloaks, chocolate-brown butterflies that hibernate as adults so they emerge to fly on the first warm sunny days of spring. For American toads to hop across Port Royal Avenue on the first warm rainy nights of spring, powered by lust to cross the road to the nearby reservoir park to mate, trilling their love songs.

For all of them, I am committed to putting spring’s parade back in order, and hope you will join me in this effort, the sacred work of saving spring. There’s only two things you need to do, one surprisingly easy, the other incredibly hard.

Easy: Get outside and simply watch the parade as it marches. Hard: Join the burgeoning effort to cool the climate. Anything you do that saves energy helps, from lowering thermostats to recycling more to, yes, buying electric cars.

Because, among other things, spring needs you.

Naturalist Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. @SCEEMikemike@schuylkillcenter.org.