Photo Courtesy of David Hall
Article Written by Mackay Pierce
Has your winter coat and scarf been collecting dust in a Roanoke College approved wardrobe these past couple weeks? Don’t worry, you are not alone. This February has been unusually warm and for Roanoke College students who have become accustomed to mid-semester snowfall and school cancellation that could come as mixed news.
The warm spell that we have been experiencing over the past couple months has basically made winter fake news. And Virginia has not been alone in the abnormally warm weather. The whole country has seen some unprecedented highs. Denver experienced a day of 80 degrees this month. Oklahoma meanwhile saw readings over the weekend of the 11 that would be more consistent with mid-summer. The highest record they saw was 99 degrees with most other counties hovering around the mid-80s to 90s. Virginia has been no stranger, either, with Norfolk seeing an 82 degree day (not seen since 1890) and the high in Salem, to date, in February has been 78.
What’s going on?
Let’s get it out of the way: Climate change is totally real and it is absolutely humanity’s fault. Sixteen of the 17 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001. Ice caps and glaciers are melting. And 2016 was the first year on record to stay above 400 parts per million Co2 in the atmosphere over the course of human history; all of which are the kinds of records we do not want to be setting. NASA, NOAA, and the IPCC all have loads more data for further homework.
Nevertheless, one warm month in February does not climate change make, just as it snowing sometimes does not mean that climate change is not real. To truly get a sense of whether a warm month means something, you have to take a look at trends. Weather is what may happen on any given day, whereas climate is the accumulation of weather over a long period of time. This February is indeed significantly warmer than usual.
What does it mean?
The possible implications of climate change are both too broad and grave for the scope of this article. But, in short, it means end of the world sort of stuff. In the meantime, there are a few observable consequences we can see due to such an abnormally warm February.
Roanoke College biology professor Michael Wise detailed some of the things that could happen. Our ecosystems are all about schedules, and while most respond more to the length of days than temperature, there can still be some pretty big effects.
“Some fruit trees may bloom too early and then freeze. Some migratory birds could come north too quickly and freeze. Some insects could come out too early and without any leaves to feed on,” Wise said.
According to the National Phenology Network, Virginia is now experiencing spring three weeks early.
Wise mentioned that in particular some less popular insect populations, like deer ticks, may benefit from the warm winter and escape the deep freezes that should kill many of them off. Alternatively, some other insects may not be able to properly diapause, a process similar to hibernation, and be negatively impacted by that very same warm weather.
Ultimately the most reasonable response may be to just enjoy one of these unintended consequences of climate change. It isn’t all good news, however; farmers of various kinds of fruit trees, such as Paw Paws, cherries, or peaches can get decimated by unexpected warm spells; with their yields getting frozen out. And, perhaps the biggest question, if it’s this warm now, what can we expect in the dead of summer?