Will the Warm Winter Confuse Nature?

Mild weather for prolonged periods may mess up the timing of some plants and animals.

Not only are groundhogs disagreeing about how long winter will last, as news media reported widely last week, but some plants and animals may act quirky due to Old Man Winter's weak performance so far this year. As noted in one of my recent columns, lack of snow cover removes an important source of insulation for plants, exposing them to freeze damage. Undue warmth toward winter's end can be even more harmful by stimulating premature flowering, although it does not trigger early emergence of leaves.

The appearance of leaves on most tree species is timed to the photoperiod – which actually is defined by the length of night rather than day – while flowering is more temperature-dependent, says Jeffrey S. Ward, chief scientist of the Department of Forestry and Agriculture at the Connecticut Agricultural Experience Station in New Haven. Trees produce leaves as hours of darkness shrink and day length increases, although, says Ward, their emergence "can vary by a week or two if temperatures are very cool or very warm."

Unseasonable warmth in winter, on the other hand, can bring forth flowers. "My Korean azalea is now blooming," says Ward, offering evidence. A hard freeze after blooming can wreak havoc with flowers and the seeds they produce. "Warming could also stir up bulbs because they begin emergence based on soil temperature," says Ward. Some plants popping up too early from bulbs may save themselves by checking the photo period and just sitting still,waiting to flower until the time is right.

If what has been happening of late in my back yard is any indication, warm weather is tricking animals as well as plants. The other day, a flock of grackles descended on my bird feeders, evoking scenes from late March and early April. A pair of mallards paddled around my small pond, showing signs of courting behavior, way too early. Luckily for them, they had departed by the time a peregrine falcon – to my amazed delight – stopped to perch for a while on a branch overlooking the pond.

People recently have told me of seeing frogs crossing roads on rainy nights, as if seeking breeding waters in spring. Someone mentioned to me that they had seen a butterfly flitting about. Such reports are bad news. Many insects and cold-blooded vertebrates such as amphibians are toast if exposed to severe cold outside of their winter refuges.

Some animals, however,  can benefit from warm winters. Deer may have an easier time finding food and thus more of them may survive until. More deer can mean more ticks that live on them, and spread Lyme disease. Warm weather can benefit ticks in general.

Thus, like all else in nature, our unusual winter has pros and cons for all of us.


Good News for Scup, Black Sea Bass and Summer Flounder

There is some good news for marine anglers, for a change. Populations of black sea bass, scup (porgy) and summer flounder (fluke) are above what fisheries biologists call "biomass targets." Without getting into technical details, it means the stocks of these fish are healthy and abundant.

DEEP will hold public hearings on managing (read that as setting limits on) these fish. The first is Thursday, Feb. 16, at 7 p.m. at the agency's marine headquarters, 333 Ferry Road in Old Lyme. Next is Saturday, Feb. 18, at 6:30 p.m. at the Connecticut Convention Center Ballroom in Hartford while the Northeast Fishing and Hunting Expo is under way.

Paul Bahre February 08, 2012 at 01:52 PM
Well the night's have been going below 32 even if the days have been a bit warmer. If we get a week of weather that is above 50 then it goes back to below freezing weather that can cause problems especially with fruit trees. I have a magnolia tree that usually buds early and it has not budded yet. Though it did take significant damage from the October storm and is less than 1/3 of the size it was before the storm. I don't think the weather is much off the norms right now. Maybe 5 or 8 degrees warmer in the day but the night time temps are still below freezing.
Maria Giannuzzi February 08, 2012 at 04:25 PM
Interesting article and comment. If night-time and early morning temperatures are well below freezing, will that prevent premature blooming? It is an odd winter, the nights and early mornings are cold, but daytime temperatures are much warmer than in recent winters. Is Connecticut becoming more like southern New York and New Jersey in terms of winter temperatures? Lovely photo too--the colors are beautiful.
44scrazy February 08, 2012 at 06:35 PM
Just a quick look at National Weather Service climate data (at Bradley Airport) for the first seven days of February reveals: The long-term average high temperature for the period is 36-37 degrees (F). The long-term average low temp. for the period is 19-20 degrees. The average high temp. so far for the first seven days of Feb., 2012 equals 47 degrees. The average low temp.for the first seven days of Feb. has been 24 degrees. And a quick look at NWS data (from the same location) for January, 2012 shows an average high temp. of about 40 degrees and an average low temp. of about 23 degrees. Long-term averages (for January) are 34 degrees and 18 degrees, respectively. In sum (no surprise), it has been several degrees warmer than average during the last few weeks for both the daily high and low temperatures. Nighttime low temperatures have been running about five degrees above the long-term average for the period.


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