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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’m a weather watcher. I’m also a nature watcher. Sometimes the Venn diagram overlaps those two areas.
I know by my blog stats that my posts here about predicting the weather by observing nature have a perennial popularity, even though they are not usually backed by science and are more of “weather lore.”
Meteorologists, on the other hand, look at things such as the La Niña conditions as very real. She is showing her effects in the Pacific now with cooler than normal sea surface temperatures across most of the eastern and central equatorial Pacific. It started in October and continued into this month.
I suppose it’s not exactly “chaos theory” when it comes to weather patterns, but I find it fascinating that cooler than normal sea surface temperatures far from where I live will affect my local weather. That is a big butterfly flapping its wings on the other side of the world.
Don’t confuse La Niña with its opposite partner El Niño which is officially the “El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. La Niña (Spanish, “the girl”) and El Niño (“the boy”) used to be seen as one thing and was once called El Viejo (“the old man”).
With all the talk about climate change, you often hear about what seem to be very small changes in the temperature of the oceans. But very small changes – a degree or two – have very big effects and La Niña and El Niño disrupt normal patterns of precipitation and atmospheric circulation not only in the Pacific but across the globe. A La Niña often, though not always, follows an El Niño.
During a period of La Niña, the sea surface temperature across the equatorial Eastern Central Pacific Ocean will be lower than normal by 3–5 °C.
It is expected that weak La Niña conditions will continue through the winter until probably February. But what does that mean for North America’s weather?
Usually, La Niña means below-average precipitation and above-average temperatures in the southern part of the United States, and colder and wetter conditions across the northern U.S. and Canada. It even affects the Atlantic Hurricane Season.
Though my East Coast has been in a drought, the Pacific Northwest had a very wet October, though that probably can’t be explained by just La Niña.
I hope the colder and wetter than normal prediction for the Paradelle area is wrong, but I’ll add it to what the wooly bears and other winter predictions showed this year and check back in the spring.
Next month is when many meteorologists make their predictions about the coming winter. The 2017 Farmers’ Almanac was published last month and very cold weather for the northern U.S. Even a few periods of unusually cold weather dipping into the deep south (Florida and the Gulf Coast) was predicted while the Western States will have a milder than normal winter.
But if you turn to nature for signs, it’s time to do your observations and make predictions within your local area.
Not all weather lore indicators is useful, depending on where you live. I can’t really take note of the early arrival of the Snowy owl, or the early departure of geese and ducks. (Geese and ducks in my area never leave!) I also can’t personally observe any early migration of the Monarch butterfly. All three of those events supposedly indicate a severe winter.
I look to all the indicators – science and popular culture. This is what meteorologists predicted last fall. My teaser post a few weeks ago about predicting the winter to come was popular and earlier posts about signs in nature that might predict the winter are perennially popular ones found in searches. (see links below)
As always, observations in your own part of the country should be more accurate than blanket U.S. predictions. Think about the weather you had last month, because August is said to indicate the winter to come. Every fog in August supposedly indicates a snowfall. (I observed no fogs. Does that mean no snow? I doubt it.) If the first week in August is unusually warm, the coming winter will be snowy and long. And what about this weather rhyme: If a cold August follows a hot July, it foretells a winter hard and dry.
Take note of how animals in your region look. Squirrels with busy tails and raccoons with thick tails and bright bands mean a rough winter. The same prediction of a rough winter is indicated by mice being very aggressive about getting into your house early. There are also claims that spiders spinning larger than usual webs and entering the house in greater numbers is a sign of severe winter weather.
In general, animals making preparations for winter early or in out-of-the-ordinary way, is a bad sign. That could be the early arrival of crickets (on the hearth?) or bees taking to the hive earlier. This is part of the same weather lore philosophy that originated the tradition of predicting spring’s arrival by groundhogs and other animal behavior.
The one I grew up hearing was woolly bear caterpillars (the larvae of Isabella tiger moths). My mother taught me that the width of the middle brown band predicts the severity of the upcoming winter. A narrow band means a bad winter and a wide band means a milder or shorter winter. Those woolly bears have 13 body segments and winter is 13 weeks long. Coincidence? Maybe. Probably.
Insects are popular winter weather signs. If you see ants marching single file or bees building nests high in the trees, get ready for a bad winter.
Labor Day weekend, we were prepping in Paradelle for the arrival of Hurricane Hermine and the wind picked up and acorns started bombarding my backyard deck from the oak trees. The squirrels and birds were also very, very active. You can attribute that to the coming storm, but acorns and squirrels have long been part of weather lore. A bumper crop of acorns (which has been predicted in my area) and squirrels that are more active than usual, is supposed to mean a severe winter. “Squirrels gathering nuts in a flurry, will cause snow to gather in a hurry.”
Is there a weather lore predictor that you have heard? Leave a comment.
More About Predicting Winter Weather
The Old Farmer’s Almanac has always included long-range predictions of the weather. They never reveal their methodology, but I imagine it is part meteorology, part historic patterns, solar cycles and part guessing. This year it predicts that it will be especially bad. Even places that don’t usually get much snowfall, like the Pacific Northwest, will get a lot.
How did the Almanac do with its August 2016 predictions for Paradelle here in the Atlantic Corridor? They say the temperature would average 74° but it was much hotter this month. Precipitation was predicted at 5.5 inches – 1.5″ above average and the hot weather has brought lots of storms. We did not have any “tropical storm threat” for the 15th-18, and so far, no “hurricane threat” for the 22-31 period – and let’s keep it that way.
Predictions for the upcoming seasons based on signs from nature are probably just as accurate -or inaccurate – but I find them more enjoyable to “read.”
Sitting outside this afternoon, I tried guessing at the temperature by listening to some crickets. I do know that crickets chirp faster as temperatures rise, and slower when temperatures fall. I’m sure my parent’s were unaware of Dolbear’s Law when they told me about crickets and temperature (Temperature = 50+[(N-40)/4] where N = the number of chirps per minute), and math is not one of my strengths, but I could tell it was getting hotter.
If you can’t distinguish a cricket “song” from a cicada or a katydid, listen to a field cricket sound.
As an amateur phenologist (one who studies the seasonal changes in plants and animals), I’m interested in these sounds. Not that I could ignore the cicadas who are very noisily chirping around my house this month.
The cicadas are pretty creepy looking and their cast-off skins that they leave attached around the backyard are also creepy. Katydids are much nicer looking in their bright green. It is difficult to find them, but easy to hear their eponymous “Katy did! Katy did!” call from he trees. Can you hear females answering “Katy didn’t, didn’t, didn’t?” Take a listen to them
They hide with their veined oval-shaped wings that look like leaves in the treetops. They start singing in August, but, if you can identify when they start their summer song, weather lore says that autumn will arrive 90 days later. I’m not sure I caught the first katydid, but today was the first day I noticed them calling. That makes autumn in Paradelle arriving November 16.
The katydids are singing for love, lust and a mate. It is mating season (August through mid-October). Feel the love?
Things are blooming in Paradelle, so I have started recording them in my garden notebook. Have you noticed any changes in when things sprout or bloom in your neighborhood? Maybe flowers tend to bloom a little earlier in the year or birds that used to migrate are hanging around your yard through the winter?
In some ways my garden notebook is a nature notebook as I find myself also recording first and last frosts, snow storms, the appearances of birds, insects and wildlife. Some of those things I report here, both seriously and also as a kind of weather lore. My posts about predicting the weather based on signs in nature seem to get a lot of hits, so I am not alone in my interest, scientific or not.
Most people have never heard of phenology. but if you have ever paid attention to the timing of natural events, like blooming flowers and migrating animals, you have been practicing this -ology. Phenology is the study of the timing of recurring plant and animal life cycle events.
If you want to make those observation to be more “official,” you can become a citizen scientist by connecting with groups like Nature’s Notebook. It is an online project sponsored by the USA National Phenology Network. Americans can practice phenology in their own habitat and share their observations with other members and have their data shared with scientists who will use the data for research and decision-making.
It saddens me how disconnected people are to the natural world of plants, animals, the earth and sky. s a lifelong teacher, it really saddens me to see how disconnected kids become as they get older. The interest is always there in very young children, so it is something that is lost.
We may not all be as observant as Sara Schaffer of Nature’s Notebook who suggests that we notice the “slightest blush on a maple leaf that foreshadows the coming fall” or the “new, more vibrant feathers warblers put on days before mating.”
Do you see the appearance of the first robin on your lawn as a sign that spring has arrived? I grew up hearing and believing that. But I have observed and recorded robins every winter. Once I saw four of them sitting on my fence in a February snowstorm. Robins as indicators of spring is a good example of weather lore.
Most robins do migrate south, but some are probably still around your neighborhood all winter – no doubt better protected in the woods than on your bare lawn. The robins that do migrate to the South in the fall, return in the spring, so then we see many more of them on that soggy lawn and field in search of food.
Geese flying south in Paradelle is a daily occurrence. They fly from the reservoir south to a pond. They never migrate and leave any more. What does that indicate? Perhaps some of it is climate change, but it is also the prime water and grass we provide them in parks, golf courses, school fields and corporate settings. Why leave?
Though thinking a captive groundhog can predict the end of winter is certainly weather lore, paying attention to events like true bird migrations can help us understand long-term trends and predict future events. That is why many observers may be reporting small changes that can help more accurately predict the long-term impacts of climate change and shorter-term events in the near future.
And observing when the smell of smoke from fireplaces changes to the smell of barbecue smoke is a definite indicator of suburban seasonal change!