Warmer winters come at a cost

This tree broke bud early last week, putting it, and any other blooming ornamental or fruit trees, at risk of damage if temperatures dip below freezing.

Debra A. Aleksinas

Warmer winters come at a cost

For many, a mild winter and early spring are reasons to rejoice.

Not so much to environmentalists, health officials, and municipalities, who said temperatures in February and March that are more akin to May, combined with fierce and frequent rain in place of snowfall, are sources of concern.

It’s not just the Northwest Corner that is experiencing a shifting climate. On Friday, March 8, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirmed that the winter of 2023-2024 was the warmest in nearly 30 years of record keeping.

According to the NOAA, the lower 48 states averaged 37.6 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 5.4 degrees above average.

The root of the issue is tied to the effect climate has on the weather, said Tom Worthley, associate extension professor at the UConn Cooperative Extension Service and the University of Connecticut Department of Natural Resources and the Environment.

“For example, when you boil a pot of water,” he explained, “it doesn’t warm evenly, it becomes turbulent, and that’s kind of what we’re seeing with the weather.”

Worse potholes and infrastructure damage

Downsides to a nonwinter include early emergence of bears and other mammals from their cozy dens at a time when food is scarce; a premature budding of trees and native plants; longer season of ticks, fleas and mosquitoes; and extended mold and allergy seasons for people with asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Bird migration is also affected when seasons don’t line up.

An early spring also hurts the local economy by hampering winter sports and damaging infrastructure as towns grapple with the expense of repairing gaping potholes caused by freeze/thaw cycles and damage to washed-out roads and bridges from intense downpours.

Cornwall First Selectman Gordon Ridgway, who also operates an organic farm in town, noted that “there is a price to pay” for winter warming.

While town road crews have used fewer resources to treat roads this winter, that cost savings has been offset by more than $500,000 in damaged infrastructure, including a washed-out dirt road last July, flood damage to a retaining wall in West Cornwall and a recent landslide.

“That projected $500,000 is huge” and is a major hit to the town’s budget, said Ridgway, who noted that the loss is not covered by insurance.

“I’ve been the first selectman for 34 years, and this is the first time the town had to pay for the damages. We always got FEMA reimbursement and so the towns are on the hook for a lot of these repairs,” as the government’s focus shifts to major disasters.

“As a result,” said Ridgway, we’re looking at a significant tax increase to help replenish our reserve.”

Waking up too early

Black bears have emerged prematurely from hibernation, prompting discussion during an early March meeting of the North Canaan Board of Selectmen’s meeting.

Worthley confirmed that a sudden winter warmup is summoning hungry bears from their dens. Since it is too early for the large mammals to find an abundance of native plants and nuts for foraging, “they are going to be looking elsewhere for food, and that might be in the garbage can or bird feeder.”

Amphibians, too, are vulnerable to sudden cold. Frogs and salamanders, for example, begin to breed at the first sign of spring, so they, too, may emerge prematurely, only to be threatened by a hard freeze.

But by far the most unusual sight Worthley has experienced in his 40 years of working in the woods is the amount of movement of organic material underfoot.

“No matter how much rain the forest floor will absorb, I’ve never seen the leaves move across the surface, and that’s unusual,” said the environmentalist. “It could be due to the presence of earthworms where they don’t belong, and the intensity of precipitation.”

Also of concern is that an early, wet spring could extend the seasons for some pests, like ticks and mosquitoes. On the bright side, a rainy spring could keep destructive spongy moth caterpillars at bay.

Bears emerging prematurely from hibernation have limited foraging options, so they are on the hunt for trash cans and bird feeders.Debra A. Aleksinas

Timing can work against birds

Early blossoming in plants and trees can throw off the schedule of available insect food for birds. To understand why it matters, said Eileen Fielding, director of Sharon Audubon, consider neotropical migrant birds like scarlet tanagers, wood thrushes or many of the warbler species.

“These are birds that winter in Central or South America or the Caribbean and come north to breed. Migrating is hugely expensive in calories, and risky, but it’s worth the trip,” said Fielding. “We may think of the tropics as buggy, but the northern latitudes provide an enormous flush of insect life every spring and summer when our trees leaf out and provide a feast for millions of fat, nourishing caterpillars and other insects.”

It’s perfect for raising young birds quickly, Fielding explained: “Each pair of breeding birds has to feed thousands of insects to their nestlings.”

Now imagine a warm spell causing trees to bud earlier than usual. In that case, she said, the insects may not synchronize with leaf-out, so there might be fewer insects. Or perhaps the birds arrive after the insects have peaked.

“There are a lot of variations on how the timing can work against birds.”

The impact isn’t all from earlier spring times. Other factors can affect insect availability or bird survival, Fielding noted.

For example, a scarlet tanager might be kept from foraging in the treetops for several days by heavy rain, long enough to threaten the survival of its young.

A winter wren, which prefers moist, shady places in the woods, might find that an intense period of drought dries up its habitat and makes its insect prey scarce, so it can no longer successfully raise broods where it used to.

Fielding fears that many birds could lose some or all of their Connecticut habitat.

Allergens, mold a growing concern

When trees, grasses and plants produce pollen prematurely, it extends the annual allergy season, according to Dr. J. Keith Joseph of Sharon Primary Care.

Exposure to pollen can trigger symptoms of sneezing, runny nose, itchy and watery eyes, headache and congestion.

“This is especially harmful for those with asthma and other respiratory issues like COPD. Pollen exposure can cause exacerbations of respiratory conditions in individuals who have an allergic reaction to pollen,” he explained.

As a result, said Joseph, increased discomfort can greatly impact emotional well-being, social life and daily activities. Individuals who enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, walking, running or bike riding may have to limit their time outside to avoid exposure to allergens:

“This can make them feel frustrated and isolated, and lack of sleep due to congestion or itchy eyes can make individuals feel tired and irritable.”

Joseph suggested those affected keep windows closed if pollen levels are high, wash hands and change clothing after being outdoors, avoid touching their eyes, and seek a referral to an allergist for identification of triggers and targeted therapy.

Recent downpours have also caused flooding to homes and businesses, which often leads to the growth of harmful mold if left untreated.

“Mild winters can increase moisture in and around your home, which can stimulate mold growth and in turn can trigger allergic reactions.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in the coming decades, “changing climate is likely to increase flooding, harm ecosystems, disrupt farming and increase some risks to human health.”

In the meantime, noted Worthley, “we are living in a giant experiment, if you will.”

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