Warm winter raises climate change questions

The U.S. just experienced its 6th-warmest winter, according to updated climate data from NOAA. And Missouri was one of 16 states that saw record warmth in February.

The effects of this record warmth are on full display at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Magnolias, flowering cherry trees, and daffodils all sprung into bloom weeks ahead of schedule. The unseasonable weather has also prompted many questions from our visitors about climate change.

The Garden has several researchers who study climate change and its effect on plants. Dr. Adam Smith is an Assistant Scientist on Global Change at the Garden’s Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development.

Despite the attention-grabbing rise in temperature, he says climate change involves many factors.

“Climate change is, like it says, change in climate. For whatever reason we often call it global warming, which gives the idea it’s warming, it’s only related to temperature, and it’s happening uniformly across the globe,” he says. “But that’s not true. Some places, most places, are warming, some places are actually getting a bit cooler, but it’s not just temperature. We have increases in rain, we have decreases, we have droughts, we have more severe storms.”

While there’s not always a clear cut link between any specific weather event and climate change, Dr. Smith says it can be an indicator.

“It’s really hard to pin any extreme weather event on climate change. Whether it’s a really abnormally winter like we’re having now, or even a particular storm, or cold snap. But what we can say is more extreme weather will happen like this. So whether this particular winter is due to climate change is hard to say, but we know we’re going to have more and more of these as we move into the future.”

image Adam Smith, Ph.D.
Assistant Scientist on Global Change | Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development | Missouri Botanical Garden
Ph.D., Energy and Resources, University of California, Berkeley, 2009

M.A., Ecology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2006

B.A., Biology, McPherson College, 1994


Another indicator of climate change is phenology. That’s the study of seasonal environmental change, especially as it relates to climate, plant, and animal life. This includes events such as when plants bloom, create seed, or go dormant. It also includes the seasonal activities of pollinators and seed dispersers, like bees and birds. Dr. Smith says throwing off those cycles could have serious consequences.

“And the issue with climate change is the more change we have, the more potential we have for a mismatch in phenology. So the pollinators might emerge after your flowers have bloomed and died. Or their seed dispersers might come at the wrong time. So the more mismatches we have, the more trouble species will have reproducing and completing their natural life cycle.”

In addition to our own research on the subject, The National Phenology Network tracks annual signs of spring, such as first leaf-out and first bloom. According to their records, spring in St. Louis sprung more than three weeks ahead of schedule this year.


Local Impact

According to Dr. Smith, St. Louis has yet to experience much climate change.

“And at least here in St. Louis it might be at most an inconvenience, or an amusement to see things blooming in February when they should be blooming in late March. But very little climate change has happened so far. We expect this to become much more severe.”

Researchers like Dr. Smith use modeling to forecast climate change, and how those potential changes could affect people and plants.

“For example, a while back I was looking at current climate data for St. Louis and projected future climate data for St. Louis. And the average high across the last 50 years in St. Louis in August is 90 degrees. But if we continue with business as usual, and don’t curb our emissions, at least under one scenario I was looking at, the average high in August in St. Louis by 2070 would be over 110 degrees. And that’d be the average high, that wouldn’t be the high-high.”

Not only would temperatures that extreme be uncomfortable for people, they would drastically alter the types of plants that could survive here. Studying climate change and phenology will help Garden horticulturists and researchers prepare for plant conservation challenges that may lie ahead.

“The more climate changes the less predictable everything will get, because we don’t have experience with what things are going to come,” Dr. Smith says.

Learn more at: mobot.org/climatechange


Cassidy Moody, Digital Media Specialist

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