Spoiler alert: It’s scary.
Spring has sprung?—?way too early. And it’s springing up earlier and earlier each year. On average, spring in North America now arrives three days earlier than it did in 1980. This year, it kicked off in late February?—?three weeks ahead of schedule.
As the climate changes, false springs?—?periods of unusually early warming?—?are becoming increasingly normal. And while the nice weather is a fun respite, false springs are nothing to celebrate: The implications of these higher temperatures cause ripples throughout the planet’s ecosystems, negatively affecting the life cycles of both plants and animals.
So before you break out your best floral fashions, let’s take a deep dive into what a false spring is and how it affects the Earth.
What is a false spring?
A false spring is a period in late winter or early spring during which the weather is warm enough to deceive vegetation, causing plants and animals to awaken early from dormancy.
The longer a false spring lasts, the higher the likelihood of plants being lulled into a false sense of security, causing them to bud and bloom. This is tricky, because winter warm spells are often followed by periods of freezing temperatures. When this happens, the plants can die. Additionally, plants and animals use the winter months to germinate and prepare for the rest of the year. Truncating the winter season leaves them vulnerable and at higher risk for sickness or death.
Phenology is the study of seasonal events; phenologists work to track plants every year to determine when they will leaf and bud. Lilacs and honeysuckle, two plants that bloom across the United States, are considered early indicators of spring. By tracking the first leaf growths of these two plants, phenologists determined that since the 1980s, plants are leafing earlier.
In fact, since the early 1900s, two-thirds of all plant and animals species studied by scientists have begun blooming, breeding and migrating early. Scientists see this phenomenon across all continents and oceans, and the trend holds true for every species of plant and animal life.
The problem with false springs
The more scientists study false springs, the more apparent it becomes that these warm periods are wreaking havoc on the planet and causing far-reaching issues.
False springs trick animals into leaving hibernation prematurely, only to discover that the plants they need to survive are still frozen. (During false springs, phenologists recommend leaving generous portions of food in backyard bird feeders to help birds stave off starvation.) In the 1980s and 90s, the population of Edith’s checkerspot butterflies became extinct in California’s Sierra Nevada region after a series of false springs caused the butterflies to exit their cocoons early.
False springs create uncomfortable situations for humans as well: The warmer weather triggers the early arrival of insects like mosquitoes and ticks, leaving people susceptible to ailments like the Zika virus or Lyme disease. The earlier plants bloom, the longer allergy season lasts. In the Rocky Mountains, the warm weather causes the snowpack to melt faster and earlier, cutting into the amount of available drinking water. (Essentially, the warm temps mean the plants absorb more of this runoff water, so there’s less to drink. In addition, dams and reservoirs aren’t equipped to handle runoff that moves down the mountain quickly, so some of that precious H2O is lost.) Less water leaves the land dry, putting the West at higher risk for wildfires.
These spells of warm weather even mess with the economy. In 2007, a false spring ruined agricultural crops and deciduous trees in the Midwest, Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. The false spring in 2012 caused Michigan to lose half a billion dollars’ worth of fruit tree crops.
What does this all mean?
Camille Parmesan is a biologist and professor at the University of Texas at Austin. In her research on climate change, she states that we “don’t have any evidence yet of any evolutionary changes of the kind that would suggest species are adapting.”
Animals may not be making evolutionary changes due to false springs, but they are making adjustments: In 2013, Parmesan reported that half of all species are moving closer to the poles, in the hopes of finding cooler temperatures. Farmers are adjusting, too, breeding wheat crops to withstand heat and other climate change variables.
Climate change and false springs are not going away: An analysis conducted by Climate Central indicates that 84% of weather stations had a winter that was warmer than normal this year; 47% had a winter that qualified as one of the 10 warmest on record.
Scientific American states that if carbon pollution is not cut, spring will arrive 13 days earlier by the middle of the century and 21 days earlier by 2100. Winter is no longer coming?—?at least not the way it once did. And that’s scary for us all.