The Planet

Spring Has Already Sprung Almost Everywhere. Is This Our New Normal?

by Ben Jervey

March 5, 2017

This week, it was announced that temperatures in Antarctica had hit an alarmingly “balmy” 63.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Though what was new was the mere confirmation of this record-breaking heat—the unseasonably warm day actually took place in 2015—it turned out to be a portent of things to come. 

These abnormally warm temperatures are fooling plants and animals into thinking that it’s spring.

As the books closed this week on meteorological winter in North America (running from December 1 through February 28), the records reveal a three-month stretch that was winter in name alone—which means 2017 might well be remembered as the year our seasons officially broke.

Temperature records have been repeatedly smashed all around the country over the past few months, and in many parts of the south and east, nothing resembling a normal winter ever took hold. Let’s start with a quick survey of the weird winter that wasn’t.

To add one anecdotal story: A neighbor here in Vermont reported to me that she found a deer tick on her after taking her dog out for a walk. In Vermont. In February. (And she wasn’t alone!)

All told, most of the country had an unseasonably warm winter, and it was dramatically warmer than average throughout the eastern half of the continent.

Climate experts will look not only at those longer term averages, but also at how many record highs and lows were set as strong indicators of a changing climate. As Brian Kahn reported at Climate Central, in February there were at least 6,045 record highs recorded, compared to only 112 record lows. “That puts the ratio at 53-to-1, making it the most lopsided month on record.”

Keep in mind, as Kahn critically notes, that “in a world that wasn’t warming, that ratio would remain constant right around 1-to-1, but research has shown that hasn’t been the case with highs outpacing lows more and more with each passing decade.”

Climate Central’s experts ran their own analysis of 1,500 weather stations across the country and found that 84-percent recorded higher than average temperatures through the winter.

These abnormally warm temperatures are fooling plants and animals into thinking that it’s spring. The National Phenology Network, run by the United States Geological Survey  (for now, until Trump cuts the budget), publishes a set of maps showing the arrival of spring as indicated by the budding of leaves on trees and the flowering of plants. The NPN map shows us that through a huge swath of the country, spring arrived as much as three weeks early. This might sound nice—Cherry Blossoms in the capital in early March!—but actually wreaks havoc with ecosystems, as Elizabeth Grossman outlined a couple years ago for Ensia.

Farther north, the Arctic has experienced a “stunning lack of freezing power,” as Eric Holthaus put it, with multiple days flirting with above freezing temperatures. Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, called the Arctic temperatures that were often 50 degrees above average “beyond even the extreme.”

This is causing the lowest extent of sea ice cover in the Arctic that we’ve ever seen. Check out the light blue line in this chart from the National Snow & Ice Data Center, or click through to the interactive version on their site. Because Arctic sea ice cover peaks on average on March 1, it’s a decent bet that we’re looking at a new record low for ice extent through the rest of the year.

In the Southern Hemisphere, their summer has been every bit as startling. In South America, a drought and prolonged heat wave in January brought about the worst forest fires in Chile’s history.Things were even worse in Australia.

There, Aussies just endured a scorcher of a summer, with many cities throughout the southeastern state of New South Wales—including Sydney—logging multiple and repeated days with temperatures above 110 degrees Fahrenheit. As my friend and colleague Graham Readfearn wrote to me from Brisbane:

 New South Wales had their warmest summer on record but the temperatures were crazy high. Sydney had it particularly bad—they got 11 days over 35C and Penrith in Sydney’s west managed to clock 46.9C (116F). Spare a thought though for the folks in the tiny outback town of White Cliffs—the overnight low one night there was 34.2C (93F).

It wasn’t just the staggering highs and sweltering lows, but the duration of the heat that scorched the continent. In Brisbane, Readfearn wrote:

We managed a full 30 days straight when the temperature got to 30C (85F) or more and that, sort of, burned the last record of 19 days...The chickens stopped laying, the grass went crispy, and the vegetables mostly died.

Or, imagining living in the city of Moree, also in New South Wales, which as Andrew Freedman of Mashable noted, endured “52 straight days with temperatures exceeding 35 degrees Celsius, or 95 degrees Fahrenheit, which set a record.”

Such heat isn’t just uncomfortable—it costs lives. Heat exposure was one of the main reasons given by the World Health Organization when it described climate change as “one of the greatest health risks of the 21st Century.” Indeed, heat waves have killed more people in Austrailia than all other natural disasters combined, and their death toll is expected to quadruple by midcentury. Though we have historically fared better in North America than Australia, with temperatures consistently shattering any impression of a “new normal,” we really have no idea what we’ll be in store for this summer. All we know for certain is that the seasons have at least a three week head start.

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Spring Has Already Sprung Almost Everywhere. Is This Our New Normal?