Wednesday, April 6, 2016

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

Satellite picture taken Tuesday
shows a strip of snow on the ground
across much of New York and
central ad southern New England
left by storms and a record
April cold spell. 
Over the past few years, I've planted lots of daffodils around my property in St. Albans, Vermont.

Last Saturday evening, I was doing work around the yard, and saw most of them were coming up.

Lush green shoots were emerging everywhere. Green is a nice color after a long, but warm, brown winter.

But I had a major tinge of sadness. I knew the big cold wave was coming, and many of of the daffodil shoots, and other emerging greenery was doomed, or at least under threat.

Oh sure, these plants are tough and can withstand pretty harsh freezes.

But temperatures fell to 10 degrees yesterday morning, and stayed below freezing for three straight days.

This was an intense April cold wave, much worse than the usual late season chill. Some towns in Vermont actually got below zero.

After a break in the cold, another freeze, almost as intense, is due this weekend.

This cold wave wouldn't have been so shocking or damaging decades ago. It used to be by early April, little if anything green was coming up, at least in most years.

This year, we're coming off the warmest winter on record. March was very much abnormally warm, too. Everything spring got going too early.


The kind of conditions we've had in recent months seems to be part of a trend.   A warmer climate, punctuated by unpredictable, disruptive extremes.

Climate scientists have long predicted that would be the regime in a warmer world. Higher temperatures, yes, but shocks to the system in the form of sharp cold waves and bigger and more unusual storms.

 I might be experiencing a taste of the new climate normal. We all are.

These daffodils were just developing flower buds
in my St. Albans, Vermont yard when an intense cold
wave arrived Sunday. By the time this photo was taken
the ground was freezing around the plants and they
were already beginning to show the strain. With
temperatures down to 10 degrees, these
plants are probably kaput for this year.  
Yes, yes, I know, I surely can't directly tie extreme temperature swings in one little corner of Vermont to the worldwide problem of climate change.

As goes Vermont goes the world doesn't necessarily apply to climate.

Plus, extreme weather events have always happened, with or without global warming.

This time of year in New England,  For instance, it was 84 degrees in Vermont in late March, 1946. And 12 below on April Fools day, 1923.

However, I can't deny that what's going on around here plays into the climate science guidebook of what to expect as we keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.


I've lived in Vermont all of my 53 years. It's definitely warmer than it was when I was a kid. I know that anecdotally, and by looking at climate records.

Maybe it's just me, but it also seems more extreme to me than it once did. In other words, the warm spells are warmer and last longer than they once did, it seems. But every once in awhile, another extreme enters the picture. Very cold. Very wet, very snowy. Very unsnowy.

Sure, it's been 10 degrees in April in the Champlain Valley of Vermont before. Quite a few times.

What's changed is the extremes like this happen with more regularity.  It stays warm, then there's a brief shock to the system. There's been several recent examples around my house in St. Albans.

I really have no idea whether this April's cold snap has nothing, a little, a lot or everything to do with climate change.

But here's the thing:

In the spring, nature has been generally been greening up earlier than it did decades ago in Vermont.  Yet the warmth that prompts these early springs often seems to get pre-empted by brief visits to an earlier, cooler climate in the form of brief, sharp cold spells.

 The greenery gets wiped out by the new extremes. To quote the cliche uttered by tired moms with kids everywhere, "This is why we can't have nice things."

There's a number of examples. Like this episode, with the exceptionally warm March in which plants came out sooner than they normally would. Now they're being battered by winter cold.

In March, 2012, we had an unprecedented week of summer warmth in which temperatures went into the upper 70s and low 80s.

The willow tree in my yard began to leaf out that year in the third week of March, more than a month ahead of schedule.

Then temperatures fell at the end of the month to run-of the mill lows of near 20. But that was enough to zap the new leaves, and the willow had a ragged, half dead appearance until early July, when a new crop of leaves finally asserted themselves.

In April, 2010, we had record warmth of around 80 degree weather in the opening days of the month and very warm temperatures until around the 27th. The trees leafed out much earlier than they normally do.

Then we had 16 inches of wet snow. The snow, piling up on the leaves, snapped countless tree branches in my yard and throughout the St. Albans area. It was a mess.


I don't think the natural world, or many humans, for that matter, are used to these abrupt weather whiplashes that have become so common.

And might become more common. As noted in previous blog posts, climate change might be making the jet stream zip and zap northward and southward much more than it used to. That would mean bigger heat waves, and continued strong cold waves as massives dips in the jet stream bring Arctic air south.

These ridges and dips are also more likely to get stuck in position, too, causing prolonged periods of drought-inducing dryness or epic rains and floods.

I'm whining that my poor daffodils plants are freezing to death as I write this, which isn't exactly the most pressing problem in the world right now.

But what of people who get caught up in new, extreme floods, like in South Carolina last fall? Or California's recent huge drought? Or  the especially numerous and strong hurricanes and typhoons in the Pacific Ocean last year? Or the occasional huge European heat waves that have killed tens of thousands of people over the past 15 years or so? Or the melting Arctic, which is having huge natural and environmental impacts?

None of these examples, and countless others are solely the work of climate change. A few probably had absolutely nothing to do with climate change.

However, climate change is probably making lots of these weather extremes more extreme.  To go back to my micro-example, what fresh horrors will my Vermont perennial flower gardens face in a weird, warm climate? Or bizarre weather episodes?

This is a tiny, not very important but telling example of how climate change can erode one's quality of life. I've always wanted to have extensive, lush perennial gardens, and I've been working hard to build them. I've got a long way to go, but I've done a lot, and it's brought added joy to my life.

Every gardener has weather related setbacks, so a freeze is something I have to accept. But what if the weather and climate get so weird I can't successful grow nice perennial beds?  That would be a bit of a ding to my quality of life, wouldn't it?

Writ large, climate change and its attendant extremes could more than ding other people's quality of life.

What about the people who have to start over or give up, not a perennial bed, but something like their house, which unexpectedly flooded in a record storm? Or their dreams of owning a beachfront condo? Or working in the ski industry? Or having their forested community devastated by a wildfire? Or coming down with some weird tropical disease brought north by a warmer world?

Some of my budding flowers might have survived this cold wave, and my perennial beds will recover and I'll enjoy them this year.

But as the climate changes, there might be a lot of people worldwide who don't so easily come back from the terrible consequences of the extremes and dangers it will bring down on many of us.

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