Waiting For The Future

[Thanks to some odd bug in the software, this was listed as “unpublished”, so I hit “Publish”. Obviously it was published, because it had 2 comment on it. But it does seem timely, int the light of this BBC report
Last week was Vappu, when Finns celebrate the coming of Spring. They do this in the traditional way, of drinking too much and going for a picnic the following day. But spring is only just arriving. Although the temperatures have risen and the snow has (finally) melted, and we still waiting for summer to start.

The last of the snow, now gone.

The last few weeks have been strange for someone from further south: it has got warmer, the birds have returned and started singing a wider repertoire than “I’m hungry” and “Look out for the cat!”, but still many of the plants think it is winter. The grass has not started to grow, and the trees are still stark

Look, ma, no leaves!
In the last few days, some have started to produce buds. The birds, though, have been arriving for several weeks: driven by their own tendencies to migrate from warmer climes. In the next week or two Finland will change from the stark beauty of trunks and branches to a greener, more luxuriant world that is beautiful in a very different way.

Not all of these species are native to Finland.
But now we have to wait, and the waiting seems to be getting longer. Climate change has given us winters that are less severe, so that the snow melts earlier. For the birds, too, spring is moving: they are arriving earlier and earlier, as they respond to a warming climate1. But many plants are not responding. They follow the rhythms of the sun, being awakened by the early morning sunlight, as they measure the shortening of the night. For them, the only response is evolutionary: plants that are programmed to respond earlier will have to disperse their seeds further north if they are to track the climate.
It is difficult to see what the outcome of this will be. Some species – birds and some plants – will be able to track the warming climate by changing their behaviour. But although they will find themselves moving into areas where the climate is benign, much of the vegetation will only awaken later. Those sleepy plants will also face problems: plants that can respond earlier will be able to adapt. Similarly, populations of plants with shorter life cycles can respond more quickly than trees that take many years to grow.
It is only over the last few years that we have started to grapple with the effects that climate change will have on populations and communities. We are starting to ask the pertinent questions: how fast can populations adapt? Can they migrate north2 quickly enough to track the climate? Will cuddly looking polar bears survive when their ice melts?
We understand that this brave new world is coming soon, and have a reasonable idea about how the climate will be affected. But we are only starting to come to grips with how this will affect our ecosystems. Just as with the approaching summer, we know that soon there will be large changes as the world warms up. The models are telling us that the next few decades will see a rush of changes in the climate and habitat, as temperatures and rainfall shift around the globe. We know these will mean changes to ecosystems, as plants and animals that prefer the new climate move in. The pace of change will be slower than the annual change from winter to summer, but may be almost as drastic.
Unlike the summer, we do not have past years to use as a guide to what will happen. We know that there will be changes, and in some ways this will be an exciting time to watch nature. For now, as in the Finnish spring, we are waiting to see the changes that we know are about to happen, indeed that are starting to happen. For now, though, we are waiting. And hopefully we will be prepared for what comes.

1 e.g. P Gienapp, R Leimu & J Merilä (2007) Responses to climate change in avian migration time – microevolution versus
phenotypic plasticity? Climate Research 35: 25-35. doi:10.3354/cr00712

2 Or south, for those of you without rpg in your hemisphere

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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9 Responses to Waiting For The Future

  1. steffi suhr says:

    I am just constantly weirded out now. Spring here didn’t seem to come for ages – it was cold way into March – and then it came so fast and furious, and it got so warm so quickly, that people are acting as if it’s summer already. The succession of plants blooming is at least three weeks early this year, and some things seem to be in bloom at the same time that ‘normally’ aren’t. I hope I will be able to adapt to that pace…

  2. Mike Fowler says:

    Nice post Bob.
    Not sure whether I should pick on your dodgy evolutionary spandrels logic or not here… I’m still recovering from Vappu and my brain’s a bit fluffy.
    Speaking of which, I’d like to see you try to cuddle a Polar bear.

  3. Alyssa Gilbert says:

    Wow – shows what I know about the world. I had no idea that spring came so soon in Finland. Thanks for the informative post!
    Speaking of which, I’d like to see you try to cuddle a Polar bear.
    Hehe! Perhaps that’s why Bob said cuddly looking!

  4. Bob O'Hara says:

    Ah, I should have noted that it was first published in early May last year (Vappu is may 1st).
    It’s all terribly confusing because I reposted it by mistake. Ho hum.

  5. Cath Ennis says:

    I definitely remember this post!
    I was walking around outside with no coat yesterday, as I’ve been doing for a few weeks, and I suddenly realised I was cold. “What’s up with that?”, I thought to myself. Then I remembered that it is in fact February… despite the warm weather, daffodils almost ready to bloom, and blossom coming through on the plum tree.

  6. Alyssa Gilbert says:

    @Bob: Wow – my brain must be mush or something. Logic would tell me that this must have been posted in…you know…spring at some point. But, I assumed this post/re-post thing happened recently.

  7. Mike Fowler says:

    I’m still waiting to read “Scientist disappears. Local polar bears report warm and fuzzy feelings” in the Churchill Chronicle, almost a year on.

  8. Åsa Karlström says:

    ha, I read this post – looked at the date and thought “Finns celebrating coming of spring in early Feb? Now he must have done something wierd” Then I saw your comment Bob. Thanks! 🙂
    It’s the almost the same day in Sweden, ‘Valborg’ or April 30th. That’s when you see the big fires (made of all the torned down branches from the snow and other cut of trees) and songs like “Winter has ravaged…” [‘Vintern rasat’]
    In the order of climate cahnge I would like to state for the record that Memphis, TN is experiencing SNOW the second (!) time after New Years and more than 3 days of subzero degrees in a row. First time was 10 days of subzero and mostly between -5 and -18C, now it’s only -6C.
    I’m just wondering what kind of heat we will get in June this year since last year we had 40C alreday in June….

  9. steffi suhr says:

    Everything is still covered in snow and ice here. Re-reading my comment from last year now, I am wondering whether spring will be as fast and furious again.
    This accidental re-posting is cool!

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