how early is spring? ask the usa national phenology network

WE OFTEN SAY, “Spring is so early this year,” reacting to some plant or animal behavior or just the weather–but is it really? A place to get perspective: the USA National Phenology Network, which in late February noted that yes indeed, spring was early—two to three weeks early—in almost the entire Southeast, the data reveals.

You can read that article, or see the current state of the season depicted in two interactive maps: one (above) particularly showing how this spring’s arrival stacks up against other years, and another (below) that tracks the progress of spring onset as it occurs up the nation. (You can also access both clickable maps, with explanations of what they reveal.)

Called “nature’s clock,” or “nature’s calendar,” phenology is the study of recurring life-cycle stages among plants and animals, and of their timing and relationships with weather and climate. (I’ve written about it before, in this interview with a Cary Institute scientist.) Using observations from amateur and professional naturalists alike, scientists can gain a better understanding of an entire ecosystem’s intimate interactions–providing a critical view into the effects of a changing climate.

The USA National Phenology Network’s goal is to get 2.5 million such data points in 2017, and each of us (or whole garden clubs, school groups or other entities) can help by joining the network’s Nature’s Notebook project.

The Network’s activities are funded by such organizations as U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, National Park Service, The University of Arizona and the National Science Foundation.

  1. Shelley Delaney says:

    Interesting information! I often wondered if we should adjust our seed starting calendar dates if the temps like these 50-60 occur in February. I’m in upstate NY as well. Does this southern information provide and indicator to the north or is it a wait and see?

    1. margaret says:

      They say in the article “This unusually early spring is likely to keep rolling north, already bringing surprising signs of spring to portions of the central Midwest and northeastern states.” But so far it’s just some hints of earliness in more northern areas, but too soon to tell yet for certain — good to check the maps and see how they evolve.

      I am hesitant to shift my seed-starting too much because early drama doesn’t necessarily mean consistently settled weather in April and May here…so I might cheat by a week at most but also must be ready to delay transplanting if the weather later is unfavorable.

  2. Gina Wagner says:

    I keep telling my husband I think it’s too late for winter to take a strong hold for any length of time. It is already March 2. We still haven’t had any long stretches of frigid cold days here in central Ohio. Just an internal feeling of mine. Very scientific on my part… ; )

  3. I fear we will lose the apple crop again this year. I want to cover up all the little snow drops that have popped up in my garden here in the upper Hudson River Valley – fear they will be very unhappy when the temperatures dip to 7 degrees over this weekend. Are you planning to try to cover up plants in your garden to avoid damage over the next several nights?

  4. Pat Howell says:

    I am commenting from Franklin, TN which is considered to be the Middle South. Having kept a Garden Jounal for years, I can tell you that my information shows plant development and some bird species arrivals are approximately 2 to 2 1/2 weeks early this year.

  5. Joe Doran says:

    I live on Cape Cod MA. and due to an early warm spell last year, my fruit trees , three apple and a peach, budded out and some time in Feb. refroze and I did not get any fruit. None. According to your phenology , the recent warm spell did not reach my area. Did I read it correctly. Thank you, Joe

  6. I would have swore that Spring came to my area (deep south Texas – like the tippy tip) a full month early! But am pleased that science and statistics tell me that it was just 5-10 days ahead of schedule. We had spring flowering trees that did not flower this year – which I can only assume is due to not enough cold hours. Thanks for teaching me how to observe and to use science to enhance my gardening experience.

  7. Michele says:

    Wondering when to prune the roses….expecting snowstorms tomorrow and next week. Maybe around St Patrick’s Day for pruning roses?

    Thank you.

    1. margaret says:

      Where do you live, Michele? Normally I like to do that kind of pruning when I start to see things about to wake up; when the bud “eyes” look like they are swelling, which for me is not before late March and can sometimes be April. I don’t want new growth that may begin to get hit with temps in the 20s, for example.

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