Wildlife Finding the Warm Winter Rather Bewildering


Cherry blossoms in the Washington, DC area captured on February 4, 2012 (Kelly Senser)
Punxsutawney Phil might think we have 6 more weeks of winter, but the geese, daffodils, and mosquitoes have a different idea.

Across the continental United States, people are noticing that it’s been unseasonably warm this winter. My colleague Tony Iallonardo asked National Wildlife Federation staff last week if anyone had noticed anything unusual.  Responses came pouring in!

  • Michigan: Jeff Alexander in Grand Haven, MI reports that for the first time in 20 years there are no ice floes on the east coast of Lake Michigan. Normally the ice is 10 feet tall and ¼ mile out into the lake! And, Brenda Archambo shared that numerous outdoor winter festivals have been cancelled because of poor ice and snow conditions.
  • Western Massachusetts: Jenny Kordick reached out to Mark Jester, President of the Berkshire County League of Sportsmen in Pittsfield MA. He reports that sportsmen are having more problems with ticks—on themselves and their dogs—even in winter. This year, several ice fishing derbies in Western MA have been postponed or outright cancelled, owing to the lack of ice. And, more geese and other waterfowl are spending the winter on lakes and ponds further north, becoming such a nuisance that golf courses and lake and pond associations are now applying for permits to destroy these new residents.
  • New York City: Eliav Bitan in New York City reports that trees are sending out green leaves already in Central Park. Emily Maxwell mentioned that the annual Winter Jam was canceled this year because it was too warm to make snow.
  • Washington, DC: Here in the DC area, several NWF staff reported that some of the famous Cherry Trees are already starting to bud out, confounding forecasts for the peak bloom, which usually would be at the end of March or early April. Meanwhile, Miles Grant says he’ll remember this winter most for the “seemingly endless bug season.” He said the little critters were crawling through is window or patio door well into December, and now are already returning!
  • Atlanta, GA: Glenn Dowling reports that his first daffodil of the year bloomed on the first day of the year. That’s a whole lot sooner than their early March bloom in 2006 and even their early February bloom last year. And, Jaclyn McDougal bemoaned that the mosquitoes are out in “full force”.
  • Boulder, CO: Brian Pritchett said he was “eaten alive” by mosquitoes last weekend, while David Ellenberger grumbled about how miserable the ski season in Colorado has been so far this year. Let’s hope that the snow they received last week helps salvage the rest of the season!
  • San Francisco Bay area: Kassie Rohrbach shares that everyone out there is talking about the drought and how the snowpack in the Sierras is at 19% of normal for this time of year. What’s worse, the lack of rain has meant more smog and much reduced visibility, even on sunny days.

Another Oddball Winter for the Record Books

According to NOAA, weather stations across the country broke or tied 3,110 daily high temperature records in January, compared to a measly 164 daily low temperature records.  This lopsided ratio is something that climate scientists have been tracking as a clear sign of global warming. In the first half of the 20th century, record highs and lows were set in about equal numbers. But, in the 2000’s, record highs outpaced record lows by a factor of 2 to 1. Climate projections for mid-century indicate that the ratio could increase to 20-to-1 if carbon pollution continues to increase.

But, global warming is having a seemingly peculiar—and sometimes confusing!—effect on winter weather. Across the Midwest and Eastern US, this year has brought unseasonably warm weather, while the last two winters are remembered for their extreme snowfall events. Some of the variation reflects normal year-to-year variability, largely due to large-scale climate oscillations like El Nino/La Nina and the Arctic Oscillation. But these weather conditions also are affected by the shifting climate baseline.  Although it may seem somewhat counterintuitive at first glance, global warming is contributing to heavier snowfall events.  As the atmosphere warms, it can hold more moisture, leading to heavier precipitation events.  If it’s cold enough, that precipitation will be snow, and lots of it!  Of course, if we don’t get a handle on carbon pollution, we’ll have fewer and fewer days that are cold enough to snow and more winters like the current one.

For more background on whacky winter weather, check out the NWF report Odd-Ball Winter Weather: Global Warming’s Wake-Up Call for the Northern United States.

What Have You Noticed?

Have you seen something that was out of ordinary?  We’d love to hear about it in the comments below!