This winter has been… odd. A couple of weeks ago, temperatures reached into the 50s and even low 60s — it was t-shirt weather; I drank lagers; I got pollen sniffles while walking in the park, and I noticed that the flocks of geese had paired up. The normal cacophony of honks was reduced to call-and-answer hoots from goose to gander. Like that geese, I assumed that spring had come early.
Yesterday, the temperature was 9 degrees.
In some ways, the geese, flowers and I were not wrong. In the United States, February marked the 27th month in a row with more days of record highs than lows. According to Scientific American, not a single US weather station east of the Mississippi recorded cooler-than-average weather this winter. The city of Galveston, Texas has tied or set record temperatures 31 times since November 1st, and Miami experienced 54 winter days above 84 degrees (a record), and never once did it drop below 50 degrees.
Spring, in short, is coming early. That is concerning, but just as important is the idea of false springs — the when a brief warm spell causes animals and plant buds to emerge from seasonal hide-aways too early, only to be hit hard by another cold snap. Like schadenfreude and hygge, false spring is a term that I have only recently learned but one that I instantly understood. It is one that all of Boston, indeed much of the Eastern US, should know well by now.
False springs, like droughts and hurricanes, do just happen occasionally and are not always the result of a changing climate. But in recent decades, false springs have become longer, warmer and more common. This means that more organisms can emerge from seeds or dens before the weather suddenly turns on them. Comparing false springs to hurricanes and droughts might seem like hyperbole. It’s not. In 2007, a false spring in North Carolina caused $26.5 million in damage to fruits and vegetables and $57.9 million to nursery crops — an impact so severe that state representatives asked the President to approve disaster assistance for the region’s farmers.
According to Climate Central, a false spring in 2012 cause half-a-billion dollars in damage to Michigan fruit trees. A University of Michigan report that year on the state’s fruit trees states bluntly that “Finding fruit to measure for this report is a chore.”
And the impacts are not limited to agriculture. For wild plants and animals, these false springs derail ecological clocks, causing havoc on species that depend on waiting out the winter to survive. The Sierra Nevada experienced a series of false springs in the 80s and 90s that killed off the region’s population of Edith’s checkerspot butterfly.
All too often climate change is obscured by time, and it’s threats seem slow and opaque. It gives the impression of a task that can always be taken care of tomorrow. But I will give false springs this: they are not about slow opaque change — you will notice a drop from 60 degrees to nine in the space of a 2 weeks. I guarantee it. False springs are not really climate change so much as climate chaos. They upend an entire season. They cause millions of dollars in damage and threaten entire species over the coarse of just weeks or months.
For the average person, that chaos might just seem like a change in weekend plans, or digging the gloves and jacket out of the closet again. But maybe — hopefully — that is enough that more people will notice the slower changes happening around the world. Then, I can tell you, even a seemingly-spring day in the park makes climate change loom large, and the honk from goose to gander sounds ever more alarming.