Pleasant weather could have unpleasant consequences later

Everybody knows by now that spring has sprung early this year. But nobody expected summer to be coming along right behind. From blooming magnolias ablaze in the UW Arboretum to maples and oaks unfurling their leaves everywhere, the changes on the...

Everybody knows by now that spring has sprung early this year. But nobody expected summer to be coming along right behind.

From blooming magnolias ablaze in the UW Arboretum to maples and oaks unfurling their leaves everywhere, the changes on the landscape and the activities of everything from birds to bees suggest we've missed a month or more from the calendar.

But while most of us have happily shed our coats and turned our faces to the sun, others who rely on a more natural and orderly advance of the seasons worry the recent warmth could spell disaster later this spring.

Andy Meyer, owner of Kickapoo Orchard near Gays Mills, said his apple trees already are in leaf and could be flowering by the first or second week of April, a full month early. A hard freeze in April -- not all that unusual -- would kill his season almost before it begins.

"One night of 20-degree cold could wipe everything out," Meyer said. "It would kill our production for the year. So the next person who tells us that they're loving this weather ..."


Those who track the comings and goings of wild creatures, from birds to bats and butterflies, worry a hard freeze or an April snowstorm could catch early arrivers by surprise and possibly threaten their survival.

Even meteorologists are having a hard time keeping up with the records being broken. Since March 14, record highs have been set eight out of 11 days. It's a stretch that state climatologist John Young called "historic."

The warmer-than-usual temperatures are expected to continue, Young said. The National Weather Service is calling for above-average warmth through April, he said, though he warned it would be unusual not to have some cold days -- even a hard freeze down to 28 degrees or colder -- during April.

Living landscape

For now, however, the early warmth has brought the landscape alive.

The UW Arboretum looks more like May than March, said Molly Fifield-Murray, outreach and education manager. Woodcock have been dancing since Feb. 22 this year, while the earliest the naturalist Aldo Leopold recorded them was March 21.

Forsythia are in full bloom, Fifield-Murray said, compared to Leopold's recording of April 10. Most noticeably at the Arboretum, the magnolias were in full bloom last week. That's the earliest they have bloomed in 45 years, Fifield-Murray said.

Birders are beside themselves as they keep track of early arrivals in the Madison area, according to longtime birdwatcher Mike McDowell. He said he has seen some species weeks earlier than a normal spring. Birders have reported seeing hummingbirds at feeders, and McDowell said there have been some unconfirmed reports of neotropical migrants from Central and South America.


"I've never seen anything like it," he said.

Insects are buzzing earlier than normal, too, said Phil Pelletteri, a UW-Madison entomologist. He said many insects are emerging four to five weeks ahead of schedule. Not included among those early emergers, however, are mosquitoes, he added, which need spring rains to breed and hatch.

Amphibians, such as frogs and salamanders, have been moving about their watery haunts at record early dates, said Bob Hay, an amphibian specialist who is retired from the state Department of Natural Resources and now does consulting. Ponds and marshes that normally are still partially ice-covered and quiet boast frog symphonies, Hay said.

'It stresses you out'

Despite the warmth and the birdsong and the blooming flowers, some say the record-breaking spring has left them feeling nervous and unsettled, both because of the connections to a warming climate and because of what might happen if April brings a snowstorm or a number of freezing nights.

Meyer, the owner of Kickapoo Orchard, already finds himself dealing with the worries of insects and disease. Last week, for example, he and other orchard owners were struggling to break out their spraying equipment to spray for the disease apple scab. Basically, Meyer said, he's trying to keep up with a spring that's moving at hyper-speed.

"Today, I'm already behind," Meyer said. "You're trying to get a month's worth of work done in a week. It stresses you out."

Once that task is out of the way, Meyer said he'll start worrying about whether he'll be able to get his trees pollinated on time. He said he relies on a service in Texas to bring bees to his orchard to pollinate his flowering trees. With his trees due to flower in another couple of weeks, he's worried the bees won't be available.


Maple-syrup producers also have been victimized by the early spring. Sap production needs cool days and freezing nights. And once a tree produces leaf buds, a hormone is produced that spoils the taste of the sap. So in some cases, a monthlong period of syrup production has been reduced to a handful of days.

Nature's intricate timing -- the synchronizing of blossoms and pollination, for example, or the arrival of certain birds and the emergence of specific insects -- generally is invisible to the casual observer. But a season like this, when such connections are strained or even severed, has the potential to make such natural timetables grimly visible.

It's entirely possible, said the Arboretum's Fifield-Murray, that green and flowering plants and trees, beautiful now because they have been tricked into behaving as though it is May, could suffer come April. Oak trees, for example, that have newly unfurled leaves could be damaged by a freeze that would turn their greening leaves ragged and brown. It's an affliction known as "tatters," Fifield-Murray said.

Bill Mueller, an ornithologist with the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory, said long-range migrating birds have evolved over thousands of years so their arrival is timed to the emergence of certain insects they rely on for food -- insects that may already have shown up and left for the year. Or early migrants could perish in freezing April snowstorms or cold spells, he added.

"I find it worrisome, to say the least," Mueller said.

(c)2012 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)

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