Robins, ticks, and cherry blossoms? Already?

Perhaps you’ve heard that we’ve had an unseasonably mild winter up here. Maybe the fact that The Five-Year-Old was still struggling with mosquito bites in November clued you in. Or maybe it was the complete lack of complaints about snow (and the requisite snow shoveling pictures that you know I would have posted, had they existed). Or maybe you live here and experienced the disconcerting bliss of a basically snow-free winter in Massachusetts for yourself.

I’ve been vaguely uneasy about the whole thing all winter. When I found myself seriously contemplating setting up The Five-Year-Old’s paddling pool on the second day of spring, I found I couldn’t stand the uncertainty any more. So I spent some time reading up on it.

Just how warm is it?

Take a look at this land surface temperature map from NASA (which I found via Weather Underground). The map compares average ground temperatures from March 8-15, 2012 against the average ground temperatures from last year. Places that are warmer are shown in red, cooler in blue. Looks like Massachusetts isn’t the only place with unseasonably warm weather.

Land Surface Temperature Map for March 8-15, 2012. (Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory.)

What does such a mild winter and hot spring mean for us anyway?

On one hand, a milder than average flu season. Plus, lots of cities are saving money on snow removal. And consumers are spending less on heating bills. So that’s good.

On the other hand, we have the potential for lots and lots of bugs this spring. (Did I mention I found two ticks on The Five-Year-Old yesterday?)

Early flowers too, although it’s hard for me to see that as a bad thing. Of course, if a cold snap takes out the flowers on the fruit trees, it could decimate this summer’s fruit crop.

What about the birds?

The Caterpickles Field Guide is already chock full of drawings of robins, cardinals, flies, worms, and bees. While the birds who spend the winter in and near Massachusetts are enjoying an early nesting season, it’s not clear what will happen with other migrating birds. After all, the bugs that sustain birds through the tough nesting season are here now. The local birds can take advantage of this by nesting now, but what will the migrating birds do?

A 1921 study of migrating birds after an unusually warm winter in the Chicago area revealed that birds like the meadowlark, robin, and killdeer who spend the winter in the Gulf States arrived early in response to the unseasonably warm weather. But warblers, kingbirds, and bobolinks who spend the winter in Central and South America arrived at their usual time. If that happens this year, those migrating birds may arrive in the wrong stage of the summer food cycle and have a hard time finding enough tasty young bugs to sustain them during the hard work of the nesting season. (Talk of the Nation on NPR had a great segment on this yesterday afternoon that also talked about the effects of the winter on bats and trout, but I can’t find the link to it now.)

What caused all this anyway?

According to meteorologist Jeffrey Masters, of the website Weather Underground, an arctic oscillation may be to blame.  (Basically a change in the portion of the jet stream that flows over the northern US this winter kept all the snow way up north.) It’s an unusual pattern for which Masters thinks climate change may be at least partially responsible.

So what’s been going on in your neck of the woods? Have you had an unusually mild winter? Warm spring? Are the birds coming home earlier? Bugs out? Flowers blooming? Did your garden produce winter vegetables you weren’t expecting?

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About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book, Did Dinosaurs Have Belly Buttons?, is currently planned for release in 2018. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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