Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

Climate Desk Associate Producer

Tim McDonnell joined the Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine, where he nurtured his interest in environmental journalism. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.

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These Pictures of Spring Flowers Will Melt Your Frozen Heart

| Mon Mar. 17, 2014 3:00 PM EDT

Climate change might have had a hand in the exceptionally cold winter much of the country just suffered through, but on the upside, there's new evidence that it's sending spring in early, and giving us more time with wildflowers.

That's the conclusion of one of the most exhaustive surveys ever conducted on flowering "phenology," the term scientists use for the timing of seasonal events (such as the day the first migratory birds arrive in a given place or, in this case, the first day flowers open). The study was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. From 1974 to 2012, biologist David Inouye* of the University of Maryland took a team to Colorado just as the winter frost was beginning to thaw, and spent the spring and summer documenting when 60 common plant species had their first, last, and peak (i.e., the most individual plants) flowering.

In all but one of the species, the date of first flowering moved incrementally forward each year, by more than a month in at least one case. You can see a sampling of the flowers in these photos, along with how much earlier they are flowering these days compared to 39 years ago, when the study began. Overall, said study co-author Paul CaraDonna, the ecological onset of spring advanced by about 25 days, from mid-May to late April, mostly thanks to warming temperatures (about 0.7 degrees F per decade here) that melted snow early.

"With these changes in climate, the plants are coming out a lot sooner," CaraDonna said.

In addition, CaraDonna said, last flowerings are happening later in the fall, so that the overall flower season is now about 35 days longer than it was 39 years ago.

Scientists have known for years that climate change messes with nature's datebook, throwing off plants (including flowers and trees), animals (from birds to plankton), and even fungi that rely on clues like temperature and weather to know when to breed, migrate, come out of hibernation, and whatever else they need to do. In fact, one of the first great phenologists was Henry David Thoreau, whose notes on the first flowering of some 500 plant species around Walden Pond were recently tapped by a pair of Boston University biologists to inform modern-day research, which found flowering times for these plants to have advanced an average of 10 days.

What makes this new research unique is not only the sheer size of the dataset, but that it tracks the flowers through the spring and summer until the frost comes back in the fall. Knowing the date of first flowering is important, CaraDonna said, but limited.

"It's like if the cover of a book looks cool, but you don't know what the rest of the book is about," he said. "We're really curious about how these patterns contribute to other patterns in the community that you can't see if you just look at first flowering."

In other words, flower phenology has implications beyond making nice company for hikers. The early appearance of flowers increases competition amongst them for pollinators, like bees, which can in turn get thrown off by unusual dining options, and the effects cascade up the ecological pyramid from there. In the biological marketplace, "things that used to be on sale at different times are now on sale together," said co-author Amy Iler.

CaraDonna said the next step in the study is to look more closely at how the shifted timing of flowers can destabilize an ecosystem, but even now he's confident the impacts are underway: "If you change this much of an ecological community, there will be consequences."

 
 

* Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to biologist David Inouye as "Daniel Inouye." We regret the error.

Photo credits:

Lanceleaf springbeauty: Wikimedia Commons

Glacier lily: Wikimedia Commons

Heartleaf bittercress: Wikimedia Commons

Western monkshood: Eric Hunt/Flickr

Slenderleaf collomia: Wikimedia Commons

American vetch: Wikimedia Commons

Ballhead sandwort: Wikimedia Commons

Aspen fleabane: Wikimedia Commons

Creeping mahonia: Matt Lavin/Flickr

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California Just Had Its Warmest Winter on Record

| Thu Mar. 13, 2014 2:26 PM EDT
temperature map
NOAA

This winter has been a tale of two Americas: The Midwest is just beginning to thaw out from a battery of epic cold snaps, while Californians might feel that they pretty much skipped winter altogether. In fact, new NOAA data reveal that California's winter (December through February) was the warmest in the 119-year record, 4.4 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average.

The map above ranks every state's winter temperature average relative to its own historical record low (in other words, relative to itself and not to other states). Low numbers indicate that the state was unusually cold; higher numbers mean it was exceptionally warm. As you can see, the Midwest was much colder than average, while the West was hotter than average (despite a season-long kerfluffle about polar vortexes, the East Coast wasn't exceptionally cold, after all).

As we've reported, there's currently a scientific debate over whether climate change in the Arcitc is making the jet stream "drunk," and thereby increasing the likelihood of extreme cold spells; the exact role of climate change in California's record heat is still unclear.

As anyone working in California's farming industry could confirm, the state also had an exceptionally dry winter, the third-lowest precipitation on record. Other interesting facts from the NOAA report:

  • At the beginning of March, 91 percent of the Great Lakes remained frozen, the second-largest ice cover since record keeping began in 1973.
  • With reservoirs in central and northern California at 36 to 74 percent of their historical average levels, these regions would need 18 inches of rain over the next three months to end the drought, much more than the state normally gets in that time period.
  • Alaska's winter was the eighth-warmest on record, 6.2 degrees F over the 1971-2000 average.

State Dept. Investigators: No Conflict of Interest in Keystone XL Review

| Thu Feb. 27, 2014 1:23 PM EST
Construction workers piece together the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline in Texas.

Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline were dealt another blow Wednesday evening with the release of a long-awaited report from the State Department's internal oversight office on a potential conflict of interest in the Department's environmental review of the project. The report found that even though employees of the contractor hired to carry out the review had previously consulted for the company pushing the pipeline, the information they provided to the Department was "not misleading."

Moreover, the report found that State Department officials had followed protocol for objectively selecting a contractor, even taking steps that are above and beyond what is officially called for. For example, a six-person panel conducted in-person interviews with each contractor applying for the job.

Last night's report, issued by the State Department Office of Inspector General (OIG), comes on the heels of the environmental review in question, which found that oil in the Canadian tar sands region would likely be exploited with or without Keystone XL. That was unwelcome news for the project's opponents, since President Obama, in his major climate change speech last summer, said his administration would approve the pipeline only if it wouldn't lead to a significant increase in carbon emissions. If rail, trucks, and other pipelines could transport the oil anyway, it's more likely the Obama administration will give a green light to the project. Last week, the editor of the prestigious journal Science (who previously served as the head of the US Geological Survey under Obama) made that argument in a surprise endorsement of the pipeline. A final decision could come this spring, but that is far from guaranteed.

The conflict-of-interest controversy dates back to November 2011, when the OIG began to investigate claims that TransCanada, the company behind Keystone XL, had improperly influenced the selection of a contractor to write an early environmental impact statement. No impropriety was found, but OIG made recommendations to improve the selection process. The next year, for a second environmental review called for by the president, State hired a new contractor: Environmental Resources Management. ERM's review was released in March 2013, and it was roundly criticized for being soft on the pipeline's potential harms, particularly downplaying the climate impact. Another major problem, as Mother Jones first reported, was that the publicly released biographies of the statement's authors, who were employees of ERM, had been redacted, concealing extensive ties to the fossil fuel industry, including work directly with TransCanada. Another OIG investigation was opened up, leading to the report released yesterday.

From the report:

Will Sochi Have Enough Snow?

| Fri Feb. 7, 2014 7:00 AM EST
American snowboarder Karly Shorr competes in the women's slopestyle snowboarding qualifying session at the 22nd Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

The Winter Olympics kicked off yesterday in Sochi, Russia (first up: men's snowboarding). When Russian President Vladimir Putin pitched Sochi to the games' organizers back in 2007, he promised there would be "real snow"... a bold claim for a town better known as a seaside summer resort. Sure enough, this week Sochi had highs in the 50s (warmer than the Super Bowl last weekend in New Jersey) and—uh oh—no new snowfall in the town. Conditions are a bit better in the mountains where the ski events take place, and organizers insist the games are ready to speed ahead on a fresh layer of fake snow.

Low snowfall has become a chronic problem for skiers and snowboarders worldwide, which has turned many of them into vocal activists against climate change. President Obama even mentioned snow sports in his major global warming speech last summer, when he said that "mountain communities worry about what smaller snowpacks will mean for tourism."

Porter Fox
Porter Fox Courtesy Porter Fox

In some cases, global warming can lead to increased heavy precipitation of all kinds, and that includes snow, as anyone who lived through the recent polar vortex in the eastern US can attest. But the best conditions for snow sports depend on a snow cover that lasts through the winter, not simply a couple serious blizzards. Over the course of the season, high temperatures can burn through even the heaviest snowfall, and according to Porter Fox, that's already happening from the Rockies to Sochi.

Fox is a veteran skier and journalist for Powder magazine who is keeping a gloved finger on the pulse of shifting slopes. He recently published a book that details how global warming is threatening the entire business model of the ski industry. It's called Deep: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow. Fox joined us for today's Inquiring Minds podcast episode, and told me that climate change could soon send snow sports crashing downhill.

You can stream our interview below (it can be found at minutes 3:30-8:30) or scroll down to read a transcript:

Porter Fox: There is going to be huge change in the ski industry in the next 10 to 20 years, and there is going to be cataclysmic change in the next 50 to 70 years. In Europe, North America, around the world, really.

Climate Desk: For skiers and snowboarders, what is that actually going to look like?

Fox: Some of the big visual indicators are we've lost a million square miles of spring snowpack in the last 45 years. Some other changes, in the Northern Rockies that snowpack is down 15 to 30 percent. Specifically in the US the rate of winter warming has tripled since 1970, it seems that winters are starting to warm faster than other seasons, and even high elevation areas are warming faster, and very specifically the US West is one of half a dozen hotspots that are warming faster than the national average. Every single one of those factors is bad news for the Sierras, the Rockies, the Cascades, my favorite places to ski in.

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