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Press Release 12-046
Live Chat on March 15: Surprising Ecological Effects of Early Springs

Scientists will answer your questions about how early springs are putting nature out of sync

Photo of cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin with the Washington Monument in the background.

This spring, the cherry blossoms of Washington D.C. may peak earlier than ever before recorded.
Credit and Larger Version

March 14, 2012

Most people consider the onset of spring and the growing season a good thing. But for nature, the trend toward earlier springs and the resulting lengthening of growing seasons may be too much of a good thing.

That's because plants and animals are responding to early springs and longer summers in different ways and at different speeds. These varying responses are damaging the synchrony between creatures that depend on one another for their survival--sometimes with potentially disastrous consequences.

Some examples:

  • Some wildflowers that migratory hummingbirds eat in their summer ranges are flowering early--before the arrival of the hummingbirds. The hummingbirds are thereby being deprived of an important food source. If this trend continues, populations of the hummingbirds and the wildflowers could decline.
  • Some wildflowers are failing to produce seeds because they are now blooming early--before the springtime emergence of many bumble bee queens that would otherwise pollinate them.
  • The vulnerability of some flowers to frost damage is increasing because early snowmelts are encouraging them to develop buds before the last frost of spring occurs.
  • Millions of hectares of North American forests are being killed by record-breaking blights of bark beetles. Populations of bark beetles are increasing, in part, because: 1) longer summers extend the beetles' reproductive season; and 2) warmer winters are enabling the beetles to survive what would otherwise be killing seasons.

Note that this was the fourth warmest meteorological winter on record across the contiguous United States and the warmest since 1999-2000, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


This chat will be hosted by ScienceNOW, the daily news site of the journal Science, and it will feature:

  • David Inouye a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Maryland and a former program director at the National Science Foundation (NSF). A specialist in the timing of natural events (phenology), Inouye has, with NSF funding, studied the phenology and abundance of 100 species of wildflowers at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory since 1973.
  • Jake Weltzin, the director of the USA National Phenology Network, which coordinates scientists, land managers, policy-makers and the public to help assess how global change affects the natural world. He has studied grasslands, woodlands and other ecosystems.

Potential topic coverage

Ask our experts about these and other topics:

  • Evidence that the timing of important seasonal events is changing in worldwide locations, including North America, Europe, Asia, the Arctic and beyond.
  • The reasons for these changes.
  • Why changes in the timing of spring events is easier to document than changes in the timing of events in other seasons.
  • The wide range of responses to seasonal changes shown by plants and animals.
  • How large numbers of backyard observers are contributing important data on seasonal changes to rigorous scientific analyses.
  • The reasons for seasonal changes that you may have observed.

How to participate in the chat

To participate in this chat, visit the chat page on March 15 from 3 to 4 p.m. EDT, and submit your questions. A transcript of the chat will be archived on the ScienceLIVE Web site.

This chat is part of Science's weekly series of chats on the hottest topics in science; these chats are held every Thursday at 3 p.m. EST.


Media Contacts
Janet J. Lee, Science, (202) 326-6627, jlee@aaas.org
Lily Whiteman, National Science Foundation, (703) 292-8310, lwhitema@nsf.gov

Related Websites
National Phenology Network: http://www.usanpn.org/

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2016, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $626 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

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