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Season Creep

How Global Warming is Already Affecting the World Around Us.


The author would like to thank all those who provided
comments, data or information for this paper, specifically:
Mark D. Schwartz, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee;
Terry L. Root, Stanford University; Ellen Baum, Clean Air
Task Force; and the staff at Clear the Air and the National
Environmental Trust. In addition, the author would like
to acknowledge the work of the Pew Center on Global
Climate Change and the work that Camille Parmesan,
University of Texas-Austin and Hector Galbraith,
University of Colorado-Boulder did synthesizing the
observable impacts of climate change in the U.S.

This report was made possible with the funding from

The Pew Charitable Trusts. The opinions expressed in
this report are those of the author and do not necessarily
reflect the views of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Jonathan Banks, Policy Director

Clear the Air
March 2006

Clear the Air is a national public education campaign to

combat global warming and improve air quality.

1200 18th Street, NW

Washington, DC 20036

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Season Creep
How Global Warming is Already
Affecting the World Around Us

An Analysis of the Impact of

Climate Change on Seasonal Cycles

ven though the full is that the researchers themselves by temperature. As temperatures
impact of global are tying the changes to warming increase globally, the delicately
warming has yet to be temperatures – in essence, pointing balanced system begins to fall into
felt, the world around us their fingers at global warming. ecological disarray. We call this
is already feeling the heat. According season creep.
to the latest scientific studies While to some, an early arrival
reviewed for this paper, the planet of spring may sound good, an In this summary we have analyzed
is warming and higher temperatures imbalance in the ecosystem can the most recent scientific evidence
are disrupting our very seasons and wreak havoc. Natural processes of seasonal changes due to global
turning their key indicators upside like flowers blooming, birds warming. Only peer-reviewed studies
down. Whatʼs most startling about nesting, insects emerging, and ice published in scientific journals are
the results of this range of studies melting are triggered in large part included. The results are clear: in the


United States and across the Northern nine days early;

Hemisphere, hundreds of species
• Frogs are starting their mating
are changing in response to global
season 12 days early;
warming. Non-biological seasonal
• The marine food chain is being
shifts are occurring as well due to the
disrupted as plankton blooms
warming trend. In short, many of the
arrive earlier;
familiar signs and signals of spring
are arriving earlier due to global • Spring snow-melt in the Western
warming: U.S. is happening 4 weeks earlier
than in the mid 20th century;
• Lilacs and honeysuckle are
• The growing season in the
HONEYSUCKLE blooming six days early;
upper latitudes of the Northern
• Northern cardinals are singing 22 Hemisphere is 12 days longer;
CANADIAN GOOSE days early;
• Lakes and rivers are freezing six
• Canadian geese, robins and whip- days later and thawing six days
poor-wills are arriving earlier; earlier; and,

• Columbine, forest phlox, butterfly • Warmer winters are moving the

weed and shooting star are all maple syrup season earlier in the
blooming earlier; year.

• The breeding season of birds such

as the common murre and Mexican
jays is starting early;

• Tree swallows are laying their eggs

Canadian geese
are arriving
Tree swallows
are laying
their eggs early

Why should we care? So what if
the ice melts sooner or the flowers
The Greenhouse Effect
bloom early? Does it really matter?
It does. In school we were all
taught about the interconnectedness
of the natural world. Changes in
phenology (the relation between
climate and periodic biological
phenomena) in one species can
have dramatic impacts throughout
the ecosystem. For example, when
plants bloom earlier due to warmer
spring temperatures, insects that
rely upon them for food must adjust
their life cycles, as do other species
further up the food chain. If a
species in the chain does not adapt, Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment ACIA, Overview report. Cambridge
University Press, 2004. http://amap.no/acia/
the chain is broken, and species begin
too late from its wintering grounds in
Africa to take advantage of the peak
If a species in the
While most springtime events are
controlled by temperature, some
insect hatchings in Europe, which are chain does not
now earlier as a result of the warmer
species time their spring events temperatures at its nesting grounds.1 adapt, the chain
based on hours of daylight, pushing For many long distance migrants,
them out of sync with the rest of the phenological changes could pose is broken, and
ecosystem that is following increased
temperature signals. Researchers in
grave risks and scientists are only
beginning to identify the dominoes
species begin
Europe have begun studying long
distance migratory birds, specifically
that could fall should climate change
continue unabated. And, as our
the pied flycatcher. While spring teachers taught us, we humans are in
temperatures have increased in that chain of dominoes.
the flycatcherʼs nesting grounds in
Europe, the flycatcherʼs arrival has As industrialized as we are,
remained constant as it is governed there are still many ways that these
by length of day in its wintering dominoes affect us already. Global
grounds in North Africa. This means warming is proving disruptive to
that the flycatcher is now arriving cultural and economic activities


Temperature and Greenhouse Gases Global Warming—It Is Here

Today. Human activities during the
last century – particularly the burning
of fossil fuels – have changed the
composition of the atmosphere in
ways that threaten to dramatically
alter the global climate in the years
to come. Global warming is caused
by the greenhouse effect, a natural
phenomenon in which gases in the
Earthʼs atmosphere, including water
vapor and carbon dioxide, trap
heat from the sun near the planetʼs
surface. Without a natural greenhouse
effect, temperatures on Earth would
be too cold for life to survive.

Throughout the last century,

however, changes to the chemical
makeup of the Earthʼs atmosphere
have been accelerating. This is
largely as a result of humans
Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment ACIA, Overview report. Cambridge burning fossil fuels, which releases
University Press, 2004. http://amap.no/acia/ large amounts of carbon dioxide
and other greenhouse gases
Changes to in a number of communities. For into the atmosphere. Since the
instance, reductions in the length industrial revolution, atmospheric
the makeup and thickness of lake ice cover due concentrations of carbon dioxide

of the Earthʼs
to the warming trend has had a clear (CO2) have increased by 31 percent.2
impact – this winter many ice fishing Concentrations of other greenhouse

atmosphere tournaments and winter festivals gases have increased as well. These
have been affected or cancelled atmospheric changes have intensified
have been due to insufficient ice. As a result, the greenhouse effect, allowing
traditions that have long been part less of the sunʼs heat to escape the
accelerating. of a communityʼs character are Earthʼs atmosphere. Global average
suffering, and the economic benefits temperatures increased during the
of such events are being lost. 20th century by more than 1° F, with

the rate of change for the period
since 1976 roughly three times that
for the past 100 years as a whole.3
According to NASA, 2005 was the
hottest year in more than a century,
and the 1990s were the warmest
decade since measurements began
in 1861.4 If current trends continue,
temperatures could rise by an
additional 2.5° F to 10.4° F by 2100.5

Despite all of this, to many of

us global warming is a remote and
distant thing. We read in the papers
felt and that the rate of change is
The 1990ʼs were
that polar ice caps are predicted to
melt in 2050 or 2100, but then we turn
occurring more rapidly than originally the warmest
expected. And yet, the impacts we are
to more immediate news. However,
scientific evidence is piling up daily, seeing today may pale in comparison decade since
showing that the first impacts of to what we can expect, if global
global warming are already being warming continues unchecked. If
began in 1861.

Nowhere To Run—A Changing Climate in a Fragmented World

hile itʼs true that the Even when dramatic changes in natural paths species would take to shift
Earthʼs climate is temperature have occurred, such as their range in the face of climate change.
constantly changing, during the past glacial cycles, species In addition, our ecosystems are under
the changes currently being felt are tended to track the retreat or onset of the stress from pollution, overexploitation,
at a pace that is faster than what glaciers instead of evolving to tolerate and invasive exotic species.
many species may be able to handle. new temperature regimes.7 During these
In a study published in February past glacial cycles, the environment was Because of these stresses, at least 20 percent
in the journal Science, researchers not the one that exists today. Today, of the worldʼs mammals, 12 percent of its
concluded that the warming in the many species have nowhere to run. birds and 31 percent of its amphibians are
late 20th century in the northern considered threatened with extinction.9 When
hemisphere is the greatest warming Habitat destruction and fragmentation climate change is added onto these, the future
the Earth has seen in 1,200 years.6 have created ecological islands that for many species is bleak. Recent research
Species have always been forced species may not be able to escape.8 has estimated that one-quarter of all species
to adapt to changing climates, but Urban areas, highways and farm lands will be on the road to extinction by 2050.10
normally at a much slower pace. surround our natural areas and block the


Earlier Signs of Spring


For years
naturalists have
kept detailed
records of
when the robins
arrived and
hundreds of
other natural
Spring indicies first leaf date departures by year across Northern Hemisphere, 1955-2002.
Schwartz 2006

all of these changes are happening in between climate and periodic or more. Now however, phenology is
response to just over a 1° F change biological and natural phenomena, is one of the primary tools for showing
in temperatures, what kinds of a little known science that for much the current impact of global warming
disruptions will we see in response to of its history, was just a pastime of on our world. By analyzing the
the several degrees increase we expect nature lovers around the world. For careful historical records of scientists
by this centuryʼs end? years naturalists have kept detailed and correlating them to temperature
records of when the first buds on records, modern day climatologists
Phenology—a 19 century
poplars opened, when the daffodils are able to see alarming trends in
pastime gives us concrete bloomed, when the robins arrived, the natural cycles that govern our
evidence of global warming’s and hundreds of other natural seasons.
fingerprint on our seasons. beginnings. In some cases the
Phenology, the study of the relation records go back more than 100 years

How Climate Change is
Disrupting the Seasons

n recently published studies Mark D. Schwartz of the University
scientists have shown of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and his
the definitive impact of a colleagues have found that spring
changing climate on our is arriving between five and six
natural environment. These studies days earlier during the 1955-2002
add to the mountain of evidence that period. This finding is consistent
global warming is here and the time with the warming trend reflected in
to address it is now. the temperature data and past smaller
scale studies. Schwartz found that
Spring starting earlier due to spring was warmer earlier, and that
global warming: In a recent study the last freeze across the Northern
titled “Fingerprints of Global Hemisphere was also becoming
Warming on Wild Animals and earlier at a similar rate.12
Plants,” by Stanford University
scientist Terry Root and others, The dates of Nature changing its habits:
researchers examined the spring Another recent meta-analysis
phenology of 130 species in the “first leaf” and by Terry Root of 143 previously
Northern Hemisphere and found that
the first signs of spring are appearing
“first bloom” of published studies reveals a consistent
temperature-related shift, or
nearly 10 days earlier on average, lilacs show that “fingerprint,” in a number of species,
compared with 30 years ago. The everything from mollusks to mammals
researchers overlaid temperature spring is arriving and grasses to trees. More than 80
data that shows the contribution of percent of the 1,400 plant and animal
human-caused global warming to
5-6 days earlier. species studied show a trend toward
changes in plant and animal behavior. earlier seasonal events. On average,
of “first leaf” and “first bloom” in
Root says that this rapid global trees bud, frogs mate, and birds nest
lilacs and honeysuckle (species
environmental change is outpacing more than a week earlier than they
which are good representatives of
species adaptation.11 did 50 years ago. One of the biggest
the response of many temperate trees changes was in the breeding of the
Lilacs - the harbinger of an early and shrubs) driven by temperature Common Murre which has advanced
spring: Using models of the dates records for the Northern Hemisphere, by 24 days per decade.13



The timing of Leopold wouldnʼt recognize this

place: Aldo Leopold, the father
days earlier, northern cardinals sing
22 days earlier, columbine blooms 13

the spring maple of wildlife ecology, helps provide days earlier, forest phlox blooms 15
one of the longer term analyses of days earlier, butterfly weed blooms
syrup tap season species changes due to changing 18 days earlier and shooting star
temperatures. In the 1930s and ʻ40s, blooms 10 days earlier. Of the 55
is crucial and the Leopold made detailed observations species studied, 35 percent showed

traditional tap of the timing of spring events on

his farm in Wisconsin. Recently,
advancement of spring events. On
average, this study found that spring

time has become researchers compared his data on events are occuring more than seven
birds and native flowers to their days earlier now than they did during
disrupted and own surveys taken in the 1980s and Leopoldʼs time. 14
1990s to see how species might
hard to predict. have changed during the 61-year Maple syrup and a warmer
period in the face of a 5° F increase climate—itʼs not so sweet: A delicate
in March temperatures. Researchers balance of sun, rain, snowfall, and
found that Canadian geese arrive 29 freezing temperatures is what helps
days earlier, robins arrive 10 days the maple tree turn its starch into the
earlier, whip-poor-wills arrive 12 sugar we in turn make into maple

syrup. A good maple syrup season
depends on nighttime temperatures
below freezing and warm daytime
temperatures greater than 40° F.
If there are a series of nights in
which temperatures donʼt fall below
freezing, the sap stops flowing. In
general, syrup tappers find that the
first sap flow of the season provides
the highest quality syrup, which
translates into the highest value

Photo of Mexican jay by Brian Small.

The timing of the spring tap is
crucial and the traditional tap time
has become disrupted and hard to
predict. In Vermont, trees were
historically tapped between the MEXICAN JAY
middle of March and the middle
of April. With warmer late winter
Early breeding season:
Researchers studying Mexican jays
The breeding
and early spring temperatures, this
has shifted towards the middle of
in the Chiricuahua Mountains of season of the
southern Arizona found that between
February. The U.S. maple syrup
industry has significantly declined
1971 and 1998, the breeding season Mexican jay
since the early 1900ʼs due to many
of the birds advanced by an average
of 10 days. Egg laying was also
advanced by an
factors, including climate related
events such as severe weather and found to be closely related to spring average of 10
monthly temperatures, which have
insect outbreaks. Research is also
showing that actual sap production increased during the duration of the days. Egg laying
may be decreased by warmer study by about 4.5° F.16 In a much
larger study of springtime bird habits,
was also found to
winter and spring temperatures.
Furthermore, as climate modeling researchers found that tree swallows be closely related
efforts have shown, climate change throughout their North American
could, during the course of several range are laying their eggs nine days to spring monthly
hundred years, remove the sugar
maple from the New England region
early. The study looked more than
3,400 nest records that spanned the
altogether. 15 years 1959-1991.17


Marine environments are also is exacerbating the decline of such

showing phenological changes: commercial fish as cod. During the
Most of the research on phenological study period, North Atlantic spring
changes has been conducted on sea surface temperatures increased by
land, but researchers recently have almost 1.8° F. 18
discovered that the food chain in
the North Atlantic Ocean has been Early amphibian breeding: In
radically altered. Using records one of the longest scientific records,
of 66 different types of plankton, researchers studying frogs in Ithaca,
the key to the marine food chain, New York were able to compare
researchers tracked changes in peak recent data from the 1990s to turn
COD plankton “bloom” throughout a 44 of the century data. Researchers
year period. They discovered that found that temperatures in the area
Researchers the timing of many plankton blooms have increased during the mating

discovered that
has been moving progressively season by 1.8-4° F and that male
forward while others have stayed frogs in almost 70 percent of the

the food chain in stable. Researchers have found that

for the stable forms, length of day
species present at the studied lakes
were beginning their mating calls
the North Atlantic is the likely driver for the timing of approximately 12 days earlier than
their bloom. The study found that they were in the early 1900s.19
Ocean has been due to the differences in how fast

radically altered. each type of plankton is moving its

bloom date forward, a mismatch in
Satellites show longer growing
season: Using satellite imagery
the food chain is occurring. This researchers have been able to

The National Phenology Network

he study of phenology of implementing the first U.S.A. National change for myriad applications, including
provides us with a useful Phenology Network. The network, once but not limited to assessing impacts of land
tool for understanding the fullyrealized,willbeinstrumentalinrevealing use and climate variability/change; and (4)
current impacts of global warming on large-scale species response patterns to engaging thousands of “citizen scientists”
our environment. However, to date, climate change. The scientists have set to contribute to data collection. The result
phenological work is often limited in its the goals for the network as (1) facilitating of these efforts will provide scientists with
geographic coverage or it is restricted thorough understanding of phenological a wealth of information to more accurately
to just a few species. Development of a phenomena, including their causes and roles characterize the phenological changes
national network to provide coast to coast in the biosphere; (2) providing empirical data occurring in the U.S. and compare them to
phenological observations, long a dream of for ground-truthing, making the most of the similar work being conducted throughout
scientists working on these issues, is finally large public investment in satellite platforms the world. The network and materials from
materializing. At an August 2005 meeting and remote sensing; (3) allowing the the 2005 workshop can be accessed at:
in Arizona, scientists began the process detection and prediction of environmental www.npn.uwm.edu.

demonstrate that the growing found that river ice thickness was
season in the higher latitudes of the decreasing as well, by as much as 23
Northern Hemisphere (north of an cm.23
imaginary line between Portland,
ME and Portland, OR), has expanded Researchers at the University
by approximately 12 days. The of Wisconsin compiled data from
lower latitudes have also shown an lakes and rivers across the Northern
increase in growing season, but not Hemisphere to analyze the trend
as pronounced. 20
in freeze and thaw dates. They
found that on average, that lakes
Melting ice and snow: Spring and rivers were freezing almost six
snow melt and lake “ice-out” (the days later and thawing more than six
thawing of ice on the surface of a days early during the 1846 to 1995
body of water) dates are other spring period. Again, temperature records
phenomena that are trending earlier showing a 2° F increase for the study
in the year. Researchers at the
Spring snowmelt
area show the fingerprint of global
Scripps Institution of Oceanography warming.24
have found that spring snow melt
in the Western U.S. is occurring up Changing the odds—a national
in the Western
to four weeks earlier than it was in
1948. While some of the changes are
solution to global warming. U.S. is occurring
The impacts of global warming are
attributed to other decadal weather already being felt. If we are to avoid up to four weeks
events, the researchers clearly state
the most catastrophic impacts, the
that global warming is increasing U.S. must take immediate action to
the trend toward earlier melt. The dramatically reduce its greenhouse
implications for the water starved gas emissions. There is no silver
near-term reductions in domestic
West are huge: early melt means less bullet, but we must implement
water when it is most needed in the greenhouse-gas emissions by using
policies that:
late summer.21 market mechanisms to provide

• Prevent irreversible harm to our companies with the incentives and

In the Northeast, researchers with climate and our world. flexibility necessary for them to
the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
• Guarantee that global warming take steps to reduce their pollution.
have found that lakes are thawing
pollution will go down and not up. These mechanisms have been used
nine to 16 days earlier than they
in the context of acid rain here in the
were in 1850. This correlates with • Assure enforceable deadlines for
a temperature increase during the making reductions. U.S. and are now being employed in

same time period in the region of other parts of the world to address
2.7° F.22 In addition, the USGS team The U.S. can produce substantial, climate change.


In 2005, as part of the mark-up recognized the pressing need to take towns – our leaders should rise to the
of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, action to address global warming. occasion and set national pollution
the Senate passed a bipartisan limits to begin dealing with the very
resolution acknowledging the Itʼs time for Congress to make real threat of climate change.■
science behind global warming and good on the promise of that
calling for legislation to “slow, stop resolution. We have the technology
and reverse” emissions of global to begin addressing this problem.
warming pollution, by mandatory What is needed is political will. As
means. The resolution, offered by the evidence continues to mount –
Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) that global warming is here now and
and Arlen Specter (R-PA), marks the is threatening everything from the
first time a majority of senators has birds and the bees to our cities and

Endnotes 8. Pyke, C., 2004. Habitat loss confounds climate 17. Dunn, P. and Winkler, D., 1999. Climate
change impacts. Frontiers in Ecology and the change has affected the breeding date of
1. Both, C. and Visser, M., May 17, 2001. Environment: Vol. 2, No. 4, pp. 178–182. tree swallows throughout North America.
Adjustment to climate change is constrained Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B
by arrival date in long-distance migrant bird. 9. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 266:2487-2490.
Nature, Vol 411. 2004. International Union for Conservation of
Nature and Natural Resources. http://www. 18. Edwards, M. and Richardson, A., August
2. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, iucnredlist.org/info/tables/table1 2004. Impact of climate change on marine
2001. IPCC Third Assessment Report – Climate pelagic phenology and trophic mismatch. Nature
Change 2001: Summary for Policy Makers. 10. Thomas, C. et. al, January 2004. Extinction 430, 881-884.
Risks from Climate Change. Nature 427, 145-148.
3. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 19. Gibbs, J. and Breisch, A., 2001. Climate
January 2005. IPCC Third Assessment Report 11. Root, T et. al., May 24, 2005. Human- warming and calling phenology of frogs near
– Climate Change 2001: Summary for Policy modified temperatures induce species changes: Ithaca, New York, 1900-1999. Conservation
Makers, 2001; and World Meteorological Joint attribution. Proceedings of the National Biology 15:1175-1178.
Organization, United Nations, WMO Statement Academy of Sciences, vol. 102, no. 21.
on the Status of the Global Climate in 2004: 20. Zhou, L. et. al., 2001. Variations in northern
Global Temperature in 2004 Fourth Warmest 12. Schwartz, M., Ahas, R. and Aasa, A., 2006. vegetation activity inferred from satellite data of
(press release). Onset of spring starting earlier across the vegetation index during 1981 to 1999. Journal of
Northern Hemisphere. Global Change Biology, Geophysical Research, Volume 106, Issue D17
4. J. Hansen, R. Ruedy, M. Sato, and K. Lo, 12, 343-351.
NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and 21. Stewart, I. et. al., January 2004. Changes
Columbia University Earth Institute, December 13. Root, T. et. al., January 2, 2003. Fingerprints towards earlier streamflow timing across
2005. GISS Surface Temperature Analysis, of global warming on wild animals and plants. Western North America. Climatic Change, Vol.
Global Temperature Trends: 2005 Summation. Nature 421, 57-60. 62.

5. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 14. Bradley, N. et. al., August 17, 1999. 22. Hodgkins, G., Huntington, T., and
2001. IPCC Third Assessment Report – Climate Phenological changes reflect climate change James II, I., December 16, 2002. Historical
Change 2001: Summary for Policy Makers. in Wisconsin. Proceedings of the National changes in lake ice-out dates as indicators of
Academy of Sciences, Vol. 96, Issue 17, 9701- climate change in New England, 1850-2000.
6. J. Osborn and K. Briffa, February 10, 2006. 9704. International Journal of Climatology, 22: 1819-
The Spatial Extent of 20th Century Warming in 1827.
the Context of the past 1,200 years. Science. 15. Rock, B. and Spencer, S. 2001. Case study
2: the maple sugar industry. Chapter 5, New 23. Hodgkins, G., Huntington, T., and Dudley,
7. Davis, M. and C. Zabinski, 1991. Changes in England Regional Assessment. Available at R., 2003. Historical trend in river ice thickness
geographical range resulting from greenhouse http://www.necci.sr.unh.edu/2001-NERA- and coherence in hydroclimatological trends in
warming: Effects on biodiversity in forests. Foundation-Doc.html Maine. Climatic Change, 61: 217-236.
Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1992
and Huntley, B. How plants respond to climate 16. Brown, J., et. al., 1999. Long-term trend 24. Magnuson, J., et. al., September 8, 2000.
change: Migration rates, individualism and the toward earlier breeding in an American bird: A Historical trends in lake and river ice cover in
consequences for plant communities. Journal of response to global warming? Proceedings of the the Northern Hemisphere. Science, vol. 289.
Botany 67:15-22. National Academy of Sciences, 96:5565-5569.

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