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How climate change is altering spring

Flickr, http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM
Spring is arriving earlier, and the vernal window is lasting longer.

You know how in old Disney cartoons and movies, spring arrives and all the birds and woodland creatures just wake up all at once?

That’s kind of how nature works, too.

But new research suggests that what we typically think of as spring: flowers blooming, ice melting... is starting to change.

Alexandra Contosta is a research professor at the University of New Hampshire.

“It can feel like one minute you’re shoveling snow, and the next minute you’re swimming. And there’s this really magical period in between when the flowers all burst and the grass gets green. And it can feel almost like a dream, because it’s over so fast,” she says.

That “magical spring period” she’s talking about is called the vernal window. It’s basically when the snow melts, the rivers start rushing, the seeds sprout, birds start to sing: all of the classic signs of spring.

But Contosta’s new study finds that those very basic, ecological things are changing. In our warmer winters, that vernal window – the spring awakening, basically – happens over a much longer period of time.

And things that used to happen back to back, now have a longer lag time in between.

“That could be a longer time when, soil is warm, where water could be moving through the soil, and trees are not active,” she says.

Which could be bad for the trees, of course.

“And so that water could be lost from the ecosystem, in ways that we don’t really understand,” she says.

If you want, Contosta says, you can ask some pretty big philosophical questions about what this all means.

“Now we’re in this sort of other dimension, of what is spring, if it’s changing this much? What does it mean for the ecosystem? What does it mean for the people who rely on the ecosystem? And what does it mean for our way of life?”

So that last one is tricky. But the other questions, such as: what does it mean for the ecosystem?

That’s what Contosta wants to tackle next.

Edited to correct a misspelling of Contosta's last name. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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