Warm Winter Could Mean Problems for Farmers, Wildlife

February 19, 2023

Above, early ice break up on the Chippewa River in Central Michigan.


Pushed along by climate change and forces across the Pacific Ocean, spring has arrived weeks early in the South and is now reaching up the East Coast into the Mid-Atlantic. In New York, temperatures are rising and bringing on warmth usually not seen until mid-March. Washington, DC’s famous cherry blossom trees are on pace to bloom early. 

The mainly absent winter may cheer people who hate the cold and those looking for lower heating bills. But it plays havoc with nature and agriculture. Warmer temperatures bring plants out of dormancy sooner, which can hurt migrating animals, and if a late cold blast arrives, the freeze can damage trees and their fruit. 

“Consistently warmer temperatures are causing wild fluctuations in the climate, which is disrupting the wildlife,’’ said Deborah Landau, director of ecological management for the Nature Conservancy. 

It can also help ticks and mosquitoes thrive to spread Lyme disease, anaplasmosis and deadly eastern equine encephalitis, as well as adding to the allergy burden for humans when pollen stays in the air longer, said Theresa Crimmins, director of the USA National Phenology Network, which tracks the onset of spring

“It definitely is an anomalously early and warm spring in the Northeast this year; I had been hesitant to not overstate things, but it really does look pretty notable,’’ Crimmins, also a research professor at the University of Arizona, said by email. 

Of all the seasons, winter has been warming the fastest and losing most of its bite due to the global heating caused by the burning of fossil fuels. This trend has shown up in data and was highlighted again last year when the US updated its normal temperature charts. Everywhere in the country, with the exception of parts of the upper Great Plains, normal temperatures — based on 30-year averages — rose. 

Toronto Star:

“Breaking back-to-back daytime highs in the middle of February is pretty noteworthy, and pretty rare,” says Geoff Coulson, a meteorologist with Environment Canada, suggesting these temperatures would be normal for late April.

“And it’s been part and parcel of a generally milder than normal winter, not just in Toronto, but across many areas in the province.”

Coulson said that in the coming months, researchers at Environment Canada will be analyzing factors like ocean currents to determine the role climate change played in this extreme winter. One warm day is not that unusual, and a warm month happens from time to time, but this winter every month has seen significantly warmer-than-average temperatures.

Washington Post:

Across much of the Northern Hemisphere, this winter is a lot warmer than usual.

Europe is experiencing a record-shattering warm spell, with meteorologists calling the current heat wave “totally insane” and “the most extreme event ever seen in European climatology.” On New Year’s Day, at least seven nations experienced their warmest January weather on record, with some cities in Spain and France sweating as temperatures rose to over 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

As the globe warms, winters around the world are changing. Since 1970, winter in the United States has warmed faster than any other season, leading to early blooms, shortened winter sports seasons and disrupted hibernations for wildlife.

After launching its invasion of Ukraine, Russia restricted the flow of natural gas to Western European countries that are supporting the Ukrainian government. Europe had braced for an energy “nightmare” in which energy-intensive manufacturing could slow and home heating costs spike.

But Mother Nature had a different plan. Forecasts for abnormally warm weather dampened demand, and European natural gas futures fell to their lowest level since the beginning of the war.

“We are quite lucky with the weather,” said Georg Zachmann, a senior fellow at the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel. Europe also sought new energy supplies, such as U.S. liquefied natural gas, to reduce Russian leverage.

Russia, he added, “certainly had hoped to put Europe on the brink of either some countries begging for gas, and therefore destroying the unity in Europe, or really creating massive turmoil.”

“That did not play out.”

Elsewhere in Europe, the warm weather is bad news. As glaciers recede and snow becomes scarcer, climate change threatens to hit the skiing industry hard. Across the Alps, springlike weather is forcing some snowless ski resorts to close early this year.

In Switzerland, temperatures are so high that the organizers of the annual ski World Cup this month are turning to artificial snow, according to the BBC. As the Swiss weather service MeteoSuisse jokedon its blog, “This turn of the new year could almost make you forget that it’s the height of winter.”


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