Imagine a February without a snowfall. And then imagine a January without any significant snowstorms. Finally, take your mind back to December 1, the date when the last snow of any note fell in our backyard. During that period, the average temperature was 49.6F (historically, the average temperature in December-February is 40F), with an unseasonably warm peak of 70F on January 12. That is the strange reality of Rhode Island in the winter of 2019-2020, and we should all be paying attention.
Seasonal creep is a phenological term referring to changes in the timing of the seasons. It is directly linked to overall warming of temperatures across the planet, and patterns observed over the past five years indicate that it has already taken hold in the Ocean State. Just take a walk in the woodlands that account for just under two-thirds of our backyard. In December 2018, The Department of Environmental Management reported that an alarming 13% of trees in Rhode Island’s forests had died as the result of “an unprecedented” combination of heat, drought, imbalance on the frequency and timing of rainfall, and insect infestations. All these elements can find their source in seasonal creep.
What impact will this have on our everyday lives? For one, a significant natural imbalance that might prove irreversible. According to Climate Change RI, seasonal creep in Rhode Island will continue to present warmer air and water temperatures, more extreme weather events, increasing rates of sea level rise, shorter winters and longer summers, and less snowfall. With this will come a change in animal behaviors, numbers and habitat, as well as the range, volume and propensity of the state’s flora. Eelgrass is in decline. Purple milkweed, three species of sedge and dwarf burhead are all now considered endangered.
And the ocean isn’t safe either. Average sea water temperatures have risen by nearly 3.6F since 1959, and this has had a particularly devastating effect on the animals that live on the ocean floor. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there has been a corresponding decline in native cold water species and an increase in invasive species from warmer waters from the south.
The unfortunate conclusion is that there is nothing we can do. As the United Nations reported in 2016, the planet has passed the point of no return and the effects cannot be reversed. Society faces an ecological and climatic crisis, and while the planet, and our backyard by extension, will find its own equilibrium, it does not necessarily mean the landscape and the ecology we know today will survive.
So, enjoy that ski season while you can. It might not be around much longer.