We’re more than a month out from the official start of spring, but that hasn’t stopped it from popping up earlier than expected. The USA National Phenology Network released data Monday showing that spring has arrived across the Southeast earlier than at any point in the last 39 years. Leaves and flowers appearing this early in the year could spell trouble for crops and wildlife in the region.
And you know what’s likely to blame? You got it: climate change.
Spring has come early because, well, temperatures are high, Theresa Crimmins, associate director at the network and research scientist at the University of Arizona, told Earther. The organization created maps to show how early spring has sprung using a model that relies on observational data of what temperatures trigger leafing and blooming events among the plants in the region, as well as data on when these events typically happen.
“When we have warmer than average temperatures, we predict that leaf out and the start to the biological activity in the spring season occurs earlier than normal,” Crimmins told Earther.
The Weather Company forecasted February would see above-average temperatures in the Southeast this year, and the plants are already reacting. Reports from citizen scientists are already confirming the model’s predictions. Crimmins said. And the Southeast isn’t alone: Spring also arrived early in parts of the West, including Portland and Seattle. What’s troubling about all this is that—hello!—we’re still in winter, man. That means temperatures could still drop, which could devastate any plants that have already flowered.
“For the most part, if flower buds and open flowers are hit with a heavy frost, that’s it for them,” Crimmins said. “They could be injured to the point where they won’t fruit and they won’t put on subsequent flowers.”
We’ve seen the consequences of this play out in the past. In 2017, an early spring (or warm winter, depending on how you see it) hurt farmers whose crops had flowered too soon and were exposed to frost. Georgia lost nearly 80 percent of its peach crops, reported the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. There’s always the possibility of such an event happening again when spring starts this early.
And farmers aren’t the only ones who suffer. So do the migratory birds and insects who arrive at this region expecting to find an abundance of flowers or fruit to eat. These critters “may be in rough shape,” Crimmins said, without their usual food sources. So is this a signal of climate change?
“It sure fits the description,” Crimmins said.
Warmer temperatures are the most basic way climate change will transform our planet. The early onset of spring is simply a result of that. That doesn’t mean parts of the world won’t continue to see wild-ass snowstorms, but average global temperatures will continue to rise.
Hell, we just lived through the hottest decade on record. And while the effects won’t end with weird seasons, we should all gear up for more earlier springs if world leaders don’t implement effective climate policy. RIP, winter.