Flowers for the New Year

Flowers for the New Year

Meera Subramanian: Flowers for the New Year

After years of hearing tales of friends and family stripping to their skivvies and submerging in icy waters, and once witnessing the spectacle of the annual polar bear plunge, I felt like my time had come. So I took the plunge on January 1, 2012, but I kind of felt like I was cheating. Though I was on the sandy shores of Cape Cod, a climate northern enough that sundown begins at about 3:30 in the afternoon this time of year, it didn?t feel very polar. The thermometer had hit fifty degrees Fahrenheit; yes, the water was colder, but that part of the plunge was fast. (For me. Others frolicked for up to nine minutes. They were the crazy ones.)

But the more unnerving part of the day occurred on the walk down to the beach. I had to brush away some tentacles of bare wintry branches that were leaning onto the sidewalk, when I noticed that they weren?t bare. A few gray twigs were tipped with an expectant yellow flower. Forsythia. Harbinger of spring. On the first of January in Massachusetts.

I guess that hopeful little flower is part of the reason why humanity just lost a precious minute on the Doomsday Clock run by the Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences (BAS). Two years ago, when there seemed a glimmer of possibility of a global response to climate change, the scientists granted us an extra minute, placing us at 11:54 p.m., with six minutes til midnight. Now we?re down to five.

Specifically, the BAS cites the International Energy Agency’s projections with regard to the demotion:

? Unless societies begin building alternatives to carbon-emitting energy technologies over the next five years, the world is doomed to a warmer climate, harsher weather, droughts, famine, water scarcity, rising sea levels, loss of island nations, and increasing ocean acidification.

? Since fossil-fuel burning power plants and infrastructure built from 2012 to 2020 will produce energy?and emissions?for forty to fifty years, the actions taken in the next few years will set us on a path that will be impossible to redirect.

? On the more positive side, solar and photovoltaic technologies are seeing reductions in price, wind turbines are being adopted for commercial electricity, and energy conservation and efficiency are becoming accepted as sources for industrial production and residential use.

But that forsythia seemed to sum it up. It?s been more than 150 years since Henry David Thoreau puttered around his pond, observing and scribbling in his journal. While some still debate the worthiness of his time spent at Walden, climate scientists now realize they have eight years of his meticulous field notes, which they can use as a database of comparative information. Richard Primack, a botanist at Boston University, and others have been diving into Thoreau?s detailed notes to help decipher how much things are changing as a result of a warming climate.

Michelle Nijhuis had a great article in Smithsonian about Primack?s work, pointing out his focus on the forty-three plants that Thoreau best documented. She writes:

They learned that some common plants, such as the highbush blueberry and a species of sorrel, were flowering at least three weeks earlier than in Thoreau?s time. On average, they found, spring flowers in Concord were blooming a full seven days earlier than in the 1850s?and their statistics clearly showed a close relationship between flowering times and rising winter and spring temperatures.

The climactic changes seem to favor invasive species, aiding to the complete disappearance of some indigenous flora and fauna.

Of the nearly 600 plant species for which Thoreau recorded flowering times during the 1850s, Primack and Miller-Rushing found only about 400, even with the help of expert local botanists. Among the missing is the arethusa orchid, which Thoreau described with admiration in 1854: ?It is all color, a little hook of purple flame projecting from the meadow into the air….A superb flower.?

Woe to the flowers gone, but isn?t it wonderful that others are coming early? Uh, no. One concern is that an off-kilter blooming schedule could separate plants from pollinators. Another is that the imbalance could cause a breakdown in many other intimate relationships, from when the insects that mama birds feed their gaping-mouthed youngsters emerge, to milkweed leaves unfolding in time for monarch butterflies to lay their eggs.

Since Nijhuis?s article was published, Primack and his colleagues and students have expanded their studies to birds as well. So far, they are finding that some tropical birds are adjusting their schedules, coming earlier in warm years and later in cool ones. But one study indicates that local Concord birds are not responding to warming temperatures as fast as plants, and that they may be missing the peak abundance of insect food in the spring. (You can watch Richard Primack talk about his studies here.)

What to do? While there was a bit of a last-minute agreement achieved at last year?s Durban Climate Change Conference, which held some weight in the eyes of environmentalists around the world, there also seems to be a consensus that, in the words of Greenpeace?s chief policy adviser in the UK, ?we’re kicking the climate can down the road.? Damian Carrington, the Guardian?s head of environment, wrote, ?The delay in Durban means politicians have deepened our titanic environmental overdraft. That debt will fall to the next generation to pay, but as Lehman Brothers and Greece showed us, debts are not always honoured.? An appropriate choice of words. This April marks one century since the Titanic, a ship created by men with such hubris that they claimed not even God could sink her, sunk.

It was especially disheartening to see that even the official post-Durban press information from the UNFCCC included meaningless prattle such as this: ?The outcomes included a decision by Parties to adopt a universal legal agreement on climate change as soon as possible, and no later than 2015.?

It reminds me all too much of a satirical story I read during the George W. Bush administration (perhaps it was in the Onion), where the former president adamantly demanded that an entire decade needs to be dedicated to researching and addressing the critical issue of climate change. Maybe, the satirical paper suggested, that decade should be 2050?60? Or later? What?s the rush? Tick Tock.

Forsythia in winter bloom (jjjj56cp on Flickr creative commons, 2012)

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