Spring Will Come Three Weeks Early in U.S. Thanks to Climate Change

Climate Change to Make Spring Come Early, Science Says
By 2100, spring will come an average of three weeks early to the U.S. thanks to climate change, according to new research. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Spring may soon come significantly earlier. Contrary to one's first impulse (fewer days spent miserably freezing in March!), that is not a good thing.

Nature relies on very specific timing to carry on. Bird migration, for example, is aligned with plant bloom, so that the birds have something to eat throughout their entire flight. But when something happens to screw up that timing, the results for both flora and fauna can be perilous. Scientists call this "phenological mismatch," and thanks to climate change, it's about to happen a lot more often.

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By the end of this century, spring in the U.S. will come an average of three weeks earlier due to climate change, according to new research published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

"Our projections show that winter will be shorter—which sound great for those of us in Wisconsin," Andrew Allstadt, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an author on the paper, said in a statement. "But long distance migratory birds, for example, time their migration based on day length in their winter range. They may arrive in their breeding ground to find that the plant resources that they require are already gone."

Overall, spring—defined by "leaf out," the day that leaves first appear, and "first bloom," when flowers first appear—will arrive an average of 22 days earlier by 2100, according to the paper. The Pacific Northwest and the mountainous regions of the Western U.S. will see the biggest shift, with spring arriving nearly a month (between 26.5 and 28.5 days) earlier than it does now. In Southern states, where "leaf out" already happens quite early in the calendar, the shift will be smallest.

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Science's understanding of what that shift will mean for plants, animals and humans is still relatively crude. It will likely change food production in some ways, and while some species will be able to adapt, others will probably suffer. But for now, the specifics of how this will play out are largely a mystery in need of research.

"Extensive regional variation emphasizes the need for future predictions that are even more fine-scale and species specific, to better understand the potential effects on natural and agricultural systems," the researchers write.