Headline writer thwarts another climate story

The editor/headline-writer at the Washington Post messed up an otherwise solid piece of reporting on one aspect of global warming, earlier plant blooms.

“Warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” according to the most comprehensive literature review by climate scientists, a finding signed off on in 2007 by all of the member governments of the IPCC, including ours (the Bush Administration at the time). Last year, a major report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences stated that the conclusion that “the Earth system is warming” is one of the “settled facts” about climate science.

So it is time for the Washington Post and other major media outlets to stop using such wishy-washy phrases as “some believe.” This story demonstrates once again that the reporters are doing a better job than the editors on climate change (see Silence of the Lambs: Media herd’s coverage of climate change “fell off the map” in 2010).

The key part of the story itself is solid:


Bloom hunters like [Cristol] Fleming, who for 40 years have been tramping through the woods, roaming along riverbanks and scrambling over rocky outcrops to document the first blooms of spring in the Washington area, worry that what they have been seeing is nothing less than the slow, inexorable shift of global warming.

They even have a name for it: season creep. And it’s happening all over the world.

For 1,000 years, the Koreans have recorded the first cherry blossoms of spring, so central is that flower to their cultural identity. For 300 years, Europeans have meticulously tracked when grapevines bloom to time planting and harvest. On both continents, botanists are finding earlier and earlier blooming.

In Washington, chronicling blooms began as sort of a rite of spring for botanists and amateur flower lovers eager to see the first signs of life after a long, barren winter. Initially, they wrote down their findings for more than 600 species in an enormous log book at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Herbarium year after year.

But over time, they began to notice the native blooms coming earlier and earlier. In a 2005 analysis of 100 of the most popular flowers they hunted, Smithsonian botanists found that 90 species bloomed two to 44 days earlier than they had 20 years ago; only 10 species, on average, bloomed later. Even the famous cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin, they found, were blooming six to nine days earlier than they had in the 1970s.

“There is always variation from year-to-year in nature. And I don’t want to sound alarmist that spring is coming earlier and earlier,” said Fleming, who is in her 70s. “But, boy, every year, we do feel it.”

It is strange world that we live in today that anyone should feel a simple report of the evidence that “spring is coming earlier and earlier” could be considered “alarmist.”

The WashPost has a nice graphic:

SOURCES: National Weather Service; Sylvia Orli, Smithsonian Institution; National Park Service. Cristina Rivero and Patterson Clark/The Washington Post.

And they have yet more reporting:

Botanists poring over the Asian and European blooming records, the Smithsonian log, and the accounts of American observers such as Henry David Thoreau and explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, are finding the same phenomenon.

“When you gather together all the scientific studies that have documented this, we can see that about 80 percent of the species are changing earlier in the spring,” said Jake Weltzin, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

As the WashPost explains, this shift does have consequences:

In Europe, the leaves of the English oak are coming out earlier, Weltzin explained, which means the winter moth caterpillar that feeds on them are also coming out earlier. But the pied flycatcher birds that eat those caterpillars are still migrating north at that time, so when they do arrive, the caterpillars have already turned into moths and are gone. That has decimated the bird population in recent years.

Likewise in San Francisco, some populations of the Edith’s Checkerspot butterfly are simply gone. With the gradual warming of Earth and ocean temperatures that have also shifted rainfall patterns, the leaves of the plantago plant come out earlier. The leaves, which the checkerspot caterpillar depends on for food, are already dried and withered by the time the larvae emerge.

And these failures to adapt, or adapt in time, are what worry Cris Fleming….

What if, she worries, these plant life cycles are speeding up, but their insect pollinators’ life cycles are not? And what if the warming Earth changes the habitat?

“Unlike animals, plants can’t just get up and move,” she said. “If they end up in a climate that’s too warm, well, they’ll just die.”

Well, we can always plant artificial flowers. They use less water and last longer anyway.

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