I watched three unsuspecting robins search my backyard for bugs this morning. Normally that would send a shiver of delight down my spine and pull me outdoors to get ready for spring planting. This morning all I wanted to do was warn them to be safe and to go back to wherever they came from.
Every year I read the weather predictions in the Old Farmer’s Almanac and the Farmer’s Almanac. (Yes, I know…not exactly the most professional sources of meteorological information….) Usually I take what I read with a grain — or two, sometimes three — of salt. This year though, the almanacs have been eerily accurate for our area and I don’t love what I’m reading for the next few months. The farmers are predicting what is called a reverse spring and we are seeing subtle signs of it already.
Spring, as defined by its meteorological definition, begins on March 1st. That’s because, according to meteorologists, each of the four seasons are exactly three months long. By this definition, the spring months are March, April and May; summer months are June, July and August; fall are September, October and November while winter is December, January and February. While it’s reassuring to know exactly when spring has arrived, assigning seasons in this very organized manner has a much greater purpose. Collecting and comparing critical climate data is much more precisely done when there are absolute boundaries with which to work.
For those with astronomical leanings, seasons are tied to the earth’s positions as it makes its yearly orbit around the sun. Instead of being defined by the month, astronomical seasons are defined by equinoxes and solstices. Under this philosophy, spring has not yet begun. For those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, spring will begin on the morning of Sunday, March 20th, the day of the vernal equinox.
Regardless of which philosophy you follow – months or equinoxes – I’d guess that you have certain preconceptions about the season. Here in the Midwest, our experience tells us that although spring begins as a cold, wet season, it holds unlimited possibilities. Throughout the season temperatures begin to gradually warm, the sun begins to consistently shine and early spring blooms begin to burst open filling the previously brown horizon with color and fragrance. Mild weather pulls us outside where gardens are enthusiastically planted and carefully, lovingly tended while spring gently glides, almost imperceptibly, into the dog days of summer.
That’s what those of us who are “of an age” (okay - old) expect; it’s what is normal for our region. Here in the Heartland, climate data going back about 30 years for March shows that we have typically followed this pattern: “Daily high temperatures (throughout the month) increase by 11°F, from 51°F to 62°F...and daily low temperatures increase by 10°F, from 33°F to 43°F. The old adage of March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb has for years held true. Unfortunately, that truth seems to be changing.
According to the prognosticators at the Farmer’s Almanac however, Mother Nature will especially challenge us this spring. Throughout the entire month of March, she will dangle several uncharacteristically warm, sunny days in front of us, but then follow them up with extremely cold temperatures and furious snowstorms. In April temperatures will shoot up and precipitation levels will tumble, bringing almost mid-summer-like conditions to most of the Midwest. And then, when we are convinced that summer has come way too early, Mother Nature chuckles to herself and changes things again. She turns May, a usually gentle month, into a turbulent one with a high potential for even less rain than the month before, vicious, sometimes deadly, storms and sharply dropping temperatures, a throwback to the winter months.
On the surface, a reverse spring appears to be no more than a minor nuisance, an annoying blip in the weather. It seems nothing worth thinking about, much less writing about. And in some ways, that is true. After all, what can a few unexpected weather anomalies actually do? A break in cold weather can prompt spring bulbs to peek through the ground a bit too early and get nipped. A few weeks without rain can mean more time watering and a slightly higher water bill. An unexpected cold snap can mean a garden will need to be replanted or even that a robin is in distress. Individually none are crises.
When looked at in a broader context however, oddities like a reverse spring send up signals that we shouldn’t just shrug off. If you examine the recent past, you can see that normal weather patterns, not just here in the Midwest but across the entire country, are out of sync. Half of the country is experiencing drought conditions – eight states are classified as in extreme drought - while at the same time, areas like the Ohio River Valley are anticipating severe flooding this spring. Tornadoes are leveling towns in states where they were previously unknown. Day to day weather patterns appear to be changing, which means that our climate is also changing.
Each change, whether as minor as an unexpected snow in April or as major as a 100-year flood, weakens our ecosystems and sets off a series of consequences not only for humans, but also for the plants, animals and insects that are vital parts of our environment.
Unpredictable weather results in unpredictable growing seasons. The vegetable gardener may see her early crops bolt before they produce, or late ones wither on the vine. Flower gardeners may no longer be able to grow their heirloom varieties. Invasive, non-native plants may overrun native species and quickly take over new areas. Imagine kudzu hanging from every tree in the neighborhood. Migrating birds, butterflies and other pollinators may find their necessary food chain disrupted.
There is no crystal ball that will definitely tell us whether or not a reverse spring is in our future this year. We will just have to wait and see. While we are waiting, let’s educate ourselves on ways that we, as individual gardeners, can help re-green our planet. Join us next week as we look at some very do-able ways to combat climate change.