In the Okavango Delta region of Botswana, one of the most highly variable climates on Earth, traditional methods of weather forecasting have served as successful strategies to anticipate the future for generations. But a new era of urgently paying attention to nature has arrived. Phenology, the study of animal and plant responses to the weather, has in the past decade gained renewed importance in the context of rapid global change. Traditionally, phenology has focused on seasonal fluctuations of plants and migrating animals. But lately, the behavior scientists are seeing is so unusual that it’s starting to seem more like tipping points are here. Why not spend a few hours this weekend on a treasure hunt with the kids?
One thing is clear: in recent years, these trends are only getting worse. We no longer have just freak weather; we have freak seasons. In 2012 and 2017, across most of North America, spring arrived exceptionally early, a trend that may soon become a nightmare for agriculture. In March 2012, overnight low temperatures broke Michigan’s previous record high temperatures in several cities, throwing the state’s apple and cherry harvests into a tailspin. It was full-on summer weather—with temperatures as warm as 90°F (32°C)—in a place that usually sees snow on the ground until April. In 2017, another early spring, on the East Coast, threw off bird migrations and led to a mismatch between food availability and the arrival of the hungry animals from far away. It was also one of the worst and longest-lasting allergy seasons in memory.
Theresa Crimmins, associate director of the USA National Phenology Network in Tucson, Arizona, chronicles these kinds of changes as part of her life’s work. What she is seeing shocks her. “If we don’t take urgent action,” she told me, “climate change projections suggest that years like 2012 and 2017 in the US could become normal by midcentury.”
Around the world, phenologists like Crimmins watch in real time, mouths agape, as the data pour in from thousands of parks, gardens, museums, and citizen scientists. When the change is this rapid, sometimes adaptation simply isn’t possible.
In moments like these, people can lapse into solastalgia, a deep longing for the natural world that we know is never coming back. Recent studies have found that our brains keep only a two- to eight-year record of weather extremes. In a world that is rapidly changing, we literally have no frame of reference for how unusual our climate-related experiences are. Climate change is changing who we are, changing our sense of place, and loosening our grasp on reality. It’s no wonder we sometimes feel like we’re losing control. My own story, of course, also has climate connections.
I grew up in Kansas. Land there has already been utterly transformed from what the first European colonizers called the “Great American Desert,” even before climate change. Kansas had been home to the Kaw people for thousands of years and is now home to some of the most productive farmland in the world.