Prove your humanity

President Trump signed an executive order this week that pretty much ignores the reality of climate change. But the seasons, they are a changin’ — as evidenced by this year’s early spring, which scientists link to climate change. In fact, new research suggests that many things we associate with the start of spring — flowers blooming, ice melting — are also starting to change.

“It can feel like one minute you’re shoveling snow, and the next minute you’re swimming,” says Alexandra Contosta, a professor at the University of New Hampshire. “And there’s this really magical period in between when the flowers all burst and the grass gets green. And it can feel almost like a dream, because it’s over so fast.”

That magical period of spring’s awakening is called the vernal window. It’s basically when the snow melts, the rivers start rushing and seeds sprout. But Contosta’s new study finds that those very basic, ecological events are changing. With our warmer winters, that vernal window now stretches over a much longer period of time. And things that used to happen back to back, now have a longer lag time in between.

“That could be a longer time, when soil is warm, where water could be moving through the soil, and trees are not active,” she says.

And that could be bad for trees, namely because water could be passing through soil systems before trees really get a chance to use it. “So that water could be lost from the ecosystem, in ways that we don’t really understand.”

Contosta says this also raises some more philosophical questions about spring.

“Now we’re in this sort of other dimension, of ‘what is spring,’ if it’s changing this much. What does it mean for the ecosystem? What does it mean for the people who rely on the ecosystem? And what does it mean for our way of life?”

Some of those questions might be beyond the bounds of science. But what it means for the ecosystem — that’s what Contosta wants to tackle next.


This story comes from our partners at Michigan Radio's Environment Report, a program exploring the relationship between the natural world and the everyday lives of people in Michigan.