These are the signs of early spring, no matter what the groundhog says


On Thursday, a plump groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil will make his annual appearance in front of hundreds of adoring fans to announce when spring is coming. Phil will whisper the fate of our winter in Groundhogese for the 137th time. When he sees his shadow on the ground, people can still expect six weeks of winter; unless, Spring will come early.

But you don’t need Phil, arguably the most famous weather forecasting groundhog, to predict when next season’s coming this year. (Plus, he’s only right about 40 percent of the time.) In many areas of the country, people can already see signs that spring is ahead of schedule. The arrival of these signals varies across the country, but the onset of warmer winter temperatures may spur plant and animal development into the season earlier than normal.

The South typically sees spring earlier than other regions, but even this year’s season is “20 to 25 days early there,” said Alyssa Rosemartin, an ecologist with the USA National Phenology Network, which tracks plant and animal observations by citizen scientists. “It’s never been this early, so it’s remarkable.”

West Texas, southern Arkansas, southern Louisiana and eastern Mississippi are all experiencing their earliest spring in 40-year phenology network records, although growth has slowed with a recent cold spell. Spring in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina came 1-2 weeks earlier than average.

Most places east of the Rockies are ahead of schedule for spring

Heat accumulation (cumulative growing degree days) in the US since January 1 compared to the 30-year average (1991-2020).

Source: US National Phenology Network


Most places east of the Rockies are ahead of schedule for spring

Heat accumulation (cumulative growing degree days) in the US since January 1 compared to the 30-year average (1991-2020).

Source: US National Phenology Network


Most places east of the Rockies are ahead of schedule for spring

Heat accumulation (cumulative growing degree days) in the US since January 1 compared to the 30-year average (1991-2020).

Source: US National Phenology Network


In southern Louisiana, early signs of spring include blooming American elms, leaves sprouting from herbaceous thistles and a flood of pollen from bald cypress trees, said Julie Whitbeck, an ecologist at Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. There and along the Gulf Coast, red maples have begun to bloom, their branches adorned with purple helicopter-like fruits.

According to the phenology network, other places are also experiencing an early spring-like bloom. Red alders began budding in Oregon and British Columbia in January, the earliest appearance in 14-year records. Tulip trees in Indiana are blooming more than a month ahead of schedule. Forsythia leaf bud breaks in Maine, an event not observed on record prior to March. Quaking aspen trees in Minnesota produce flower buds that are not usually seen until mid-February to mid-April.

Data suggests these springtime signals are the result of consistently mild temperatures across the country since a pre-Christmas incursion of arctic air. Many places east of the Rockies experienced their warmest January on record, according to the Southeast Regional Climate Center. Average temperatures of 6 to 10 degrees above normal are setting records from McAllen, Texas on the Rio Grande to Houlton, Maine on the Canadian border.

These extra degrees make a big difference for some plants and animals.

According to the Phenology Network, heat accumulation is one of the most important ways to predict life cycle transitions in plants and animals. Many plants and animals need to experience some level of sustainability Heat to trigger egg budding, or hatching, which the researchers measure using “growth degree days.” Growth degree days essentially measure the heat required for an organism to grow.

An early spring would mean that the plants and animals would experience more warmth than usual and reach the required number of growing days more quickly.

On the other hand, cooler temperatures could push back plant and animal development, as seen in California and Arizona, which are lagging behind about a week later than normal.

Not only plants react to the early heat, some animals also announce the early spring. Gina Lloyd, citizen science coordinator at Barataria Preserve south of New Orleans, said in late January she began hearing the chorus of calls from frogs known as spring peepers — sounds that signify the start of their breeding season and with heavy spring rains to be linked.

“I saw a lot more frogs than I normally do in January,” Lloyd said. Also snakes.

This year’s early spring signs follow a larger warming trend seen in recent decades. Analysis shows that winters in the United States are warming faster than any other season. Over the past 50 years, average winter temperatures in every state have warmed by at least one degree Fahrenheit; 70 percent have seen increases of at least three degrees. The duration of winter is also decreasing worldwide, as studies show.

“Climate change increases the odds for everything related to it: for warmer winters, shorter winters, earlier springs,” Rosemartin said.

(Side note: Phil should probably factor these climate results into the future. Based on Phil’s previous predictions since 1887, he’s more likely to be predicting a longer winter — he predicts a longer winter 78 percent of the time and early spring just 15 percent of the time falls time. )

Early plant growth and active animals could be vulnerable to severe weather in winter season.

This winter, many of the same areas along the Gulf Coast that saw early spring were rocked by violent January thunderstorms, which occur much more frequently in March and April. The storms — fueled by unusually warm Gulf waters — spawned destructive and deadly tornadoes. The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center received 124 preliminary tornado reports last month, mostly in the south. The average January number is closer to 50.

Rosemartin said it was possible that something like that Destructive storms could do more damage to budding plant tissue or branches that would otherwise remain dormant.

However, research shows that while climate change is making winters warmer overall, intense cold snaps are still a possibility and winter could still bring frosty weather. Meteorological winter lasts until late February in the northern hemisphere, and wintry weather can often occur as late as March and April, when meteorological spring begins.

The first measurable snowfall of the season was observed along the Interstate 95 corridor early Wednesday, before a brutal cold snap is expected in the Northeast on Friday and Saturday. In the southern United States, an intrusion of cold air makes for frigid weather.

In Texas, winter storm and ice storm warnings covered most of the state on Wednesday, and temperatures were expected to remain below freezing for up to four days. It may not be clear until spring seriously arrives what damage, if any, the early plant growth could cause, said Courtney Blevins, Fort Worth regional forest ranger for the Texas Forest Service.

“We don’t usually stay below freezing for more than a day or two,” he said. In recent years, frosts in the South have devastated early crops and pushed up fruit prices.

In areas where mild January temperatures kept the ground from freezing, this has allowed water to seep into the soil and provide a growth signal for trees, Whitbeck said. It could also help protect these ecosystems from future cold snaps, she added. It takes longer to heat and cool hydrated soil than dry soil, so any drop in temperature would have to be particularly sharp or permanent to freeze saturated soil.

In southern Louisiana, for example, there is still a risk that a freeze this severe could happen. “The first three weeks of February is still fair game for a hard freeze,” Whitbeck said.

Even if there are signs of spring, winter can still bring frosty weather. That’s a lot of nuance for a groundhog to predict.

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