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Whether it feels or looks like spring or like winter outside your home today, spring is officially here. It slipped under my pillow while I was still asleep this morning at 6:28 am ET here in the Northern Hemisphere.
Our ancestors my not have understood what was happening to our planet from a celestial viewpoint, but they were more careful observers of the world around them and definitely marked today as something significant. Ancient observers built devices, buildings and places like Stonehenge to measure and mark changes in the Sun’s movements. Of course, that was what they thought was happening – that the Sun was moving closer or further from Earth. They may have been wrong on that part, but they were able to mark that today was midway between the sun’s lowest path across the sky in winter and highest path across the sky in summer.
Though we visualize an equinox as occurring on the imaginary dome of Earth’s sky, it is a very real point on Earth’s orbit that is halfway between the two extremes of the sun’s path in your sky. “Your sky” because though the equinox occurs at the same time for all of us. The seasons are based on whether you are in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere.
One thing you can observe easily at each equinox (no Stonehenge required) is that the sun rises due east and sets due west from where you live. An equinox happens when the ecliptic – or sun’s path – intersects the celestial equator, that imaginary line above Earth’s equator.
Go outside around sunset and sunrise and notice the location of the sun on the horizon with respect to local landmarks. You can then use those landmarks to find those cardinal directions in the months ahead and observe how the sunrise and sunset points move southward or northward. I showed my young sons this many years ago by crudely tracking the sunrise moving from window to window during the year from the vantage point of our East-facing family room. It was a pretty interesting lesson in science.
Today the sun is on the celestial equator. It may be springlike outside or it may still seem like winter, but the new season has arrived.
For a few weeks in February, it sure felt like spring was very near in Paradelle – or maybe it had arrived early – even if the calendar and Earth’s tilt said otherwise. I saw crocuses and daffodils up and blooming. Tree buds seemed to be starting their bud burst.
Then the thermometer reversed itself and we had our biggest snow of the winter.
The news reported that the cherry blossoms in the nation’s capital are threatened, and the ones in New Jersey, which generally peak in early April, might also be affected. [Not So Trivial Fact: New Jersey has more cherry trees than Washington D.C. – the largest cherry blossom collection in the United States. But the Branch Brook Park cherry blossom webcam in Newark just shows bare trees and snow as I write this.]
I have written before about the study of cyclic, seasonal natural phenomena which is called phenology. The National Phenology Network tracks “Nature’s Calendar” via phenological events. But can we actually predict the seasons with any accuracy?
These nature observations include the ones we all have been observing lately, such as trees and flowers, but also ones that you may not be able to observe or just don’t pay attention to. Those signs of seasonal change include male ungulates, such as elk or deer, growing antlers at the beginning of the rut and breeding season each year, mammals that hibernate seasonally to get through the winter, and bird migration during the year.
Other than the false Groundhog Day forced observations, phenological events can be incredibly sensitive to climate change. That change can be year-to-year, but the timing of many of these events is changing globally – and not always in the same direction and magnitude.
According to a Public Library of Science (PLOS) blog, “From 1982 to 2012, spring budburst (when the leaves first appear) has advanced by a bit over 10 days, while the onset of autumn in the northeast US has pushed back about 4.5 days. No trends were found for other regions. This lengthening of the growing season has profound implications for the ecology of these forests and potentially their ecological evolution. A longer growing season could translate to high carbon storage for increased growth, but higher rates of decomposition and changes in moisture availability. However, these changes in phenology are primarily driven by increasing temperatures. In a warmer world, some species may simply not be able to survive where they are now, creating a dramatic change in the species composition. And this is without considering changes in precipitation.”
The National Phenology Network’s project called Nature’s Notebook collects data from more than 15,000 naturalists across the nation who, using standardized methods, provide information about plant and animal phenology.
Project BudBurst is another citizen science focused project using observations of phenological events and phases through crowd-sourcing. Project like this give you the opportunity to make your observations of nature more conscious, and to contribute to the knowledge base.
This post first appeared, in slightly different form, on my Endangered New Jersey blog
Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog predicted another 6 weeks of winter, but on that day I saw a lone dandelion already blooming at the neighborhood park. Maybe it was being bold, or being stupid, to bloom so early. It was covered by snow the following week. But according to estimates by the National Phenology Network, spring has already arrived in much of the Southwest and Southeast. It was about 20 days early for the Southeast. They track Extended Spring Indices which are models that scientists have developed to predict the “start of spring” at a particular location.
This weekend in Paradelle, we are enjoying temperatures in the 50s and 60s after a windy week in the 20s and 30s. Such is this time of late winter and early spring.
I have written a few times about phenology which is the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life.
They use historical observations of the timing of first leaf and first bloom of certain plants (for example, cloned lilacs and honeysuckles) and daily observations from weather stations.
Many deciduous plants in temperate systems put on their leaves as temperatures warm in late winter and early spring. Using the Extended Spring Index models, scientists can look at how much the start of spring has varied from one year to the next at a particular location, and whether recent years are dramatically different from the past or not. The models can also be used to forecast when selected plants might bloom or put on leaves in future years.
I have been keeping my own bloom records for my home turf for about 20 years. Though my property is certainly its own “micro-climate” with variations due to shade, soil etc., I have seen earlier springs over the years for certain plants that are my own little “control” group.
The USA National Phenology Network developed Nature’s Notebook, a project focused on collecting standardized ground observations of phenology by researchers, students and volunteers like me.
I think their mission should be everyone’s mission, even if you don’t get as official as doing phenology: Gain a better understanding through considered observation of the plant and animals that surround you and how they relate to your environment and broader environmental change.
Spring is officially still a month away for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t already observing signs of it in your little corner of the world.
I like the poetry of William Carlos Williams. He is a Jersey boy like myself, born in 1883 in Rutherford. He went off to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, but returned home and had a solid medical practice throughout his life. Simultaneously, he was publishing poems, novels, essays, and plays.
His poem “Spring and All,” begins:
By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast—a cold wind.
It was written just a short time after the publication of T. S. Eliot‘s “The Waste Land.” Both poems open with a rather unpleasant spring season. Eliot wrote that:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
I am feeling more optimistic about the new season, so I am more in a mood for an E.E. Cummings kind of spring.
whistles far and wee
Just a reminder that Daylight Saving Time (in the United States) for 2016 begins at 2:00 AM on Sunday, March 13 and runs until 2:00 AM on November 6.
Daylight saving time (DST) (happily called “summer time” in British English and European official terminology) means we advance our clocks to “spring ahead” into summer.
Afternoons and early evenings have more daylight and mornings have less.
This practice goes back to 1895 and many countries have used it since then, though with varying details.
All kinds of benefits are claimed for the practice. In the early days of DST, it was done to reduce evening usage of incandescent lighting (a big use of electricity then), and to add extra daylight hours to retailing, sports, and other activities that exploit sunlight after working hours.
You might get some extra sunshine which is good for some natural Vitamin D. Sufferers of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) may find some relief, but clock shifts also disrupt sleep patterns and some people’s circadian rhythm. It is often suggested that you turn your clock ahead in the early evening the night before (tonight) and just lose an hour and go to sleep as usual as a way to transition, rather than waking up to setting it back and losing an hour. Of course, many of our devices do the adjusting automatically now, and if traveling to other time zones doesn’t mess you up, this is probably no big deal.
I have been writing about the changing of the seasons for a few years now and there is only so much you can say about the spring equinox, autumn equinox and the solstices of summer and winter. I try to find a new path into them and for this season I am thinking about spring in music and in the sky.
As a quick review, “equinox” is derived from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night), because the night and day are approximately equal in length on that day. We experience an equinox in spring and fall when the tilt of the Earth’s axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun which is vertically above a point on the Equator. An equinox actually occurs at a specific moment in time (for 2015, today, March 20 at 6:45 pm EDT), but commonly people refer to the entire day as the equinox or first day of the season.
It is very “northern” of me to say it is the Spring Equinox, because in the Southern Hemisphere this celestial observation means the start of autumn. Being that autumn is my favorite season, I have often thought that I should travel between the two hemispheres to get two autumns each year. Unfortunately, the Sun doesn’t allow me to live in a three-season world and avoid winter.
(Soundtrack to this post)
The Four Seasons (Italian: Le quattro stagioni) is a set of four violin concertos by Antonio Vivaldi (1720) and his best-known work. My knowledge of classical music is shallow, but I was reading about this piece and discovered a few interesting nuggets.
I like that Vivaldi provided some additional instructions with the music, such as “The barking dog” in the second movement of “Spring.”
It seems that there is some debate as to whether or not the concertos were written to accompany four poems (sonnets) or if the sonnets were written to accompany the music. It doesn’t seem to be known who wrote these sonnets,and some say that Vivaldi wrote them himself. Either by plan or coincidence, each sonnet is broken down into three sections, nicely corresponding to a movement in the concerto.
The Four Seasons is sometimes classified as “program music,” instrumental music that intends to evoke something extra-musical. For me, the four pieces, especially “Spring,” does evoke the season.
If you listen to the music tonight, I suggest that you turn your eyes to the sky and look for Arcturus. It is one of the brightest stars. Due to its northerly location on the sky’s dome, it is visible for much of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and its appearance in the evening sky heralds the coming of the spring equinox.
Like other stars, Arcturus rises four minutes earlier every day and now Arcturus will appear at dusk (instead of nightfall or early evening) which is its signal of spring in our hemisphere.
Arcturus is the brightest star in the constellation Boötes the Herdsman. It is not one of the best-known constellations. The name comes from the Greek Βοώτης, meaning herdsman or plowman (literally an ox-driver; from boos, related to the Latin bovis, “cow”). It is one of the 48 constellations described by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy, but it was first used by Homer in his Odyssey as a celestial reference point for navigation.
Homer described it as “late-setting” or “slow to set.” It is not clear exactly whom Boötes is supposed to represent in Greek mythology is not clear. The story I will go with is that he was a son of Demeter, twin brother of Plutus, a ploughman who drove the oxen in the constellation Ursa Major. The ancient Greeks saw what we call the “Big Dipper” as a cart with oxen.
It seems a nice match with the spring that one myth associated with Boötes is that he invented the plow which certainly is associated with spring and planting. If you think of him as a “herdsman,” that works too, as those who watch over a herd of cows, sheep or other animals leads a nomadic life very much guided by the seasons. Spring is the time to move to those areas that were snow-covered and the tain and melting turns the land green again.
If staring up at the big sky makes you feel small and timeless – a good feeling, I believe – then also consider this: even the equinoxes are constantly changing. They are not fixed points but move westward along the ecliptic, passing through all the constellations of the zodiac in a period of 26,000 years. This motion is called the precession of the equinoxes. And we think that the 5000 year Mayan calendar was looking at a long period of time…