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By DEBORAH E. LANS

GHENT–It’s warm out there, the winter was easy and spring has come early. Or, has it? The weather has toggled between the 60s and the 20s, and the clouds have brought an array of rain, hail and snow. Adapting a phrase from the environmental writer Elizabeth Kolbert, the county is experiencing no-analog weather.

The frogs are out this year. Photo by Deborah E. Lans

In general, winters in the Hudson Valley are now 5ºF warmer than 50 years ago. This January, Columbia County’s temperature was 7ºF warmer than the average throughout the 20th century. This January saw more than 6” of precipitation. The average over the last century was 2.82”. In the Northeast, the seasonal snowpack has decreased by 10 to 20% every decade, according to a Dartmouth College study.

The changes are such that the U.S. Department of Agriculture reclassified most of the county’s “Plant Hardiness” rating from zone 5b to zone 6a this year. (Only the New Lebanon area remains a 5b.)

The state recently issued its Interim Climate Impacts Assessment. Its top finding was that “Average and maximum temperatures have increased in New York State since the early 20th century.” The increase, moreover, has been more rapid in New York than the national average, and winters are warming three times more rapidly in the state than summers, according to another Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) study.

The assessment also found that New York has experienced an increase in both total precipitation and heavy precipitation events, again with the greatest increases being seen in winter. Snowfall and snowpack are lessening with the warming temperatures.

The Farmscape Ecology Program (FEP) published a study (reported on in depth in the January 13, 2023 issue) of changes in the “phenology” of the area. Phenology studies the timing of nature’s seasonal life-cycle events. FEP found data on the first flowering and first leafing of trees and plants dating back to the early 1800s and compared it to data from the 2010s. FEP found that, in general, the first flowering date had advanced by 10.6 days and first leafing had advanced by 19 days in our area.

But no studies are even needed this year to tell us the climate is changing. The signs are everywhere. The coltsfoot are out, the daffodils are up, moths are flitting about, the red winged blackbirds, always an early sign of spring, and the American robins have returned – all, several weeks early.

Xandra Powers of Cornell Cooperative Extension Columbia and Greene Counties (CCE) and Master Gardener Jean Thomas report that at CCE’s lab in Highland the apple trees are already blooming. They worry that the return of cold weather may harm the trees and dampen yield. Last year, the early blooming of peaches, followed by a cold snap, decimated the crop.

Meanwhile, the pale pink fringe of maples budding is visible on the tree tops. The willows are leafing weeks early.

The mild winter this year meant that the bears never really hibernated. Ms. Thomas reports they used her compost heap as a snack bar throughout the winter.

Geese typically migrate when ponds and lakes freeze over, because they need open water to feed. This year, Ms. Powers observed the geese utterly confused – setting out but then returning to the area repeatedly.

Moreover, the lilacs may be off this year. After the temperature cooled last fall, the county experienced a bout of warm weather and many lilac rebloomed. “They may have used all their energy,” says Ms. Thomas, “and there may not be magic this spring. The forsythia shared the same story.”

The DEC has just issued an advisory concerning this year’s early start of the annual salamander and frog migration – the period when these amphibians cross the roads from their winter habitat to vernal pools. In fact, the sound of peepers was already deafening in the evenings last week, but the return of the cold has silenced them (for now)…

Rebecca Pinder PhD, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia-Greene Community College, had an early start to her maple sugaring this year. She had to tap her trees in early February this year, much sooner than usual.

And, at Bard, students wearing shorts have already been sighted by Professor Elias Dueker, who usually studies other aspects of the environment.

The premature spring and weather changes are not necessarily good signs, as much as many may welcome the warmth of an early spring.

As the FEP study found, the phenologic changes may create disruptive mismatches between species. Flowers that feed birds may blossom earlier than the migrating birds they feed make their seasonal return, if the birds rely on length-of-daylight signals, not warmth, to migrate. The birds may arrive to find empty plates.

Various pests and viruses now thrive in our area that were absent previously, such as the hemlock woolly adelgid and the spotted lanternfly, that feeds on crops, plants, fruit trees and maples, according to Ms. Powers.

David Newman of Arthur’s Point Farm cautions that the changes stress plants and animals, threatening agricultural productivity and the overall ecological health and resilience of the area. Tick populations increase, also endangering human health. When the weather whipsaws between warm and cold, trees and shrubs that blossom early may be damaged, not to recover at least for this year.

For these reasons, the assessment found that extreme precipitation, warmer winters, late spring freezes and increased pest pressures are factors that significantly and negatively impact the agricultural sector.

Animals, like weasels, that need snow cover are more vulnerable to predators when the cover is lacking. Plants, wood frogs and many other species rely on the insulation created by snowpack, and without it they must expend more energy to survive the winter cold.

Conversely, whereas snow cover may deprive species, like deer, of food, naturally thinning their herds, a warm and snow-light winter season will increase the numbers of that species – which many now consider the worst of the area’s pests.

Professor Pinder gave perspective to the overall changes in an email to The Columbia Paper: “My great-grandmother lived to be 105, and we had many conversations about how the weather just isn’t what it used to be. She would tell us how they would switch the wagon wheels with sleigh runners at the beginning of November and they wouldn’t be switched back to wheels until early May! The snow would accumulate, it wouldn’t melt away between storms as it does now. We know this has ramifications for all things living in the soil (plants, invertebrates, salamanders, etc.) but I think we still haven’t appreciated how different our future may be.”

More information on the visible impacts of climate change can be found in CCE’s podcasts “Nature-Calls-Conversations” and on its website ccecolumbiagreene.org; on Arthur’s Point Farm blog, arthur’spointfarm.com; and on the DEC website dec.ny.gov., especially its report: “Observed and Projected Climate Change in New York State: An Overview.”

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