Naturalists Observe Changes

Naturalists’ Observations of Changes in Weather, Ecosystems, Hydrology, (and possibly Climate) in Virginia USA

by Beverly Hunter, February 2014 for the World Bank Course on Climate Change

In the World Bank international course on climate change, I learned that some people who live in cities say they do not experience the effects of climate change. They say they simply turn up the air conditioning if it gets hot outside. Yet I have friends here in rural Rappahannock County, Virginia who live close to the land, as gardeners and naturalists. We talk often about the changes we are observing.

In this small report I attempt to demonstrate through eight real-life examples, that direct personal observation and engagement with the natural world are useful for  “seeing” the impacts of climate change on ecosystems, hydrology, agriculture.  Notice the importance of small scale mitigation efforts made possible when a person is sensitive to the nuances of soil, plants, animals, water, weather, temperatures, and the interactions of these.  Credibility here is based on direct observation and minimal generalization.

I said to a few of my naturalist friends:

I am asking you, based on your personal experience as a person who lives close to the land and observes natural systems: What effects of climate change have you observed directly?  How have these effects and impacts affected your behavior and that of others around you?”

Here are some of my own answers:

I have managed and/or observed gardens, meadows, forests, and streams on our land for forty years.

We now sometimes go for weeks without rain. Last year I invested in several tanks for storing rainwater from the roof of my house (2500 gallons), so that I can water my gardens during dry spells.

Exotic and/or invasive vines such as Japanese honeysuckle, Oriental bittersweet, and poison ivy are more and more prolific and require more time to control. They grow faster due to increased CO2 in the air.

My favorite tree species, the Hemlock, lived on a north-facing slope near the Rappahannock River. It is dying out due to invasion of wooly adelgid which I am told is moving northward due to increased temperatures. We spent thousands of dollars rescuing a dozen hemlocks beside our house but cannot save the whole forest.

Many plants are flowering and fruiting one or two months earlier than they used to. Persimmons we used to harvest in late November are falling ripe to the ground in September. I can harvest winter crops such as kale, turnips, parsnips, later into fall and winter.

Timothy Bondelid is a hydrologist who maps large water systems internationally and lives in Rappahannock County Virginia:

Here are things I’ve observed directly:

Much less snowfall in the (Blue Ridge) mountains; very few years when we have snow, which is vital for replenishing groundwater.

Streams going from perennial to intermittent; a result of groundwater storage being reduced.

A drought almost every year in the past 15 years.

More severe weather; droughts, storms, etc.

Springs going dry; springs that to most peoples’ memory had never gone dry.

Farmers are referring to a “new normal” for weather. These are conservative people, but the most in touch with weather conditions. Most of them are believers in climate change!

As a hydrologist, I’ve been tracking the bad conditions out West, especially the diminishing snowpack and severe summer droughts.

I would like to add that the science of climate change re. hydrology needs more work on natural long-term cycles (20 to 50 years) versus climate change effects. These long-term shifts can actually be “jump-shifts”.

Bruce Jones owns and manages a Nature Preserve.

My experience with our changing climate has come about in our normal planting regimen in the spring of each year.  Here-to-fore, you used to be able to plant in May; native plants would become established in the ground by July.  As a result of the higher than normal temperatures in May, June, July, and August, we find we need to plant as many plants as possible in late March or early April, weather permitting.  This allows for some root growth and maturity before the extreme heat of the summer.

In addition, we are using more ”shade devices” that will shade the new plants from the extreme heat of the sun (cedar shakes or the like); in addition, we are now planting more native plants that can take dry conditions, as the droughts that come in the summer, are becoming the norm.   We look at the habitat requirements of each plant prior to purchasing  for this requirement of drought acceptability.  It seems that we only get good drenching rain when we get the after effects of a hurricane.

So, we have stopped planting the native plants that cannot tolerate hot and dry conditions.  We have lost too many plants that cannot handle the lack of moisture.

Donna Marquisee is a Professional Gardener

The biggest change I’ve noticed is how infrequent rains and less snow has affected tree and shrub root growth. Trees develop shallow spreading roots to best absorb soil moisture from showers. When high winds follow heavy rainfall, trees will topple revealing a lack of deep/tap type root structure.

Climate change has extended the fruiting season of blueberries. Southern varieties fruit later into the year. Northern varieties come in earlier.

Plants are not going dormant as early. Fall pruning of deciduous plants in November will trigger new growth if it stays warm thru December.

The ground is not freezing as deeply as in the past. Vole, mole, and other burrowing rodents are active later into the year.

My response to climate change embraces the positive aspects of a longer growing season for food crops. Row covers and blankets allow year round growing of green leafy crops in raised beds.

Pruning of deciduous plants immediately after summer bloom sometimes allows a second bloom for winter interest.  Plants which need a slightly longer season to set fruit are offering more winter food to wildlife.

Awareness of rainfall pattern has changed my choices for new installations. Trees such as beech, birch, and carpinus  which colonize by spreading roots are the healthiest  specimens in my home forest.

Barbara Dennee sponsors an ecology club at an elementary school in Culpeper Virginia.

The Earth’s climate is getting warmer, and the signs are everywhere… just observe what’s happening right in your backyard!  Within the last twenty-five years, I have observed how the land is suffering due to the many changes in the weather, animal migration, and plant life. Extreme temperatures and dramatic weather! Unusual insect and bird migration “patterns!”  Altered life cycles of plants and trees!

When I first moved to Virginia in 1989, I was amazed at the robin migration in the spring!  Hundreds and hundreds of robins, heads cocked, listening for worms in a feeding frenzy were seen day after day in early March.  Now, I observe robins throughout the winter and other seasons but never in the large numbers I observed in the spring many years ago. It is not unusual to observe robins in January in Virginia.

Most plants and animals live in areas with very specific climate conditions, such as temperature and rainfall patterns, that help them to survive and to thrive. Any change in the climate can affect the plants and animals living there, along with the entire ecosystem. Some species, like the robin perhaps, are already responding to a warmer climate by moving to cooler locations. People can help these animals adapt by protecting and preserving their habitats.

I sponsor an Ecology Club at my elementary school where I teach and help educate students in protecting and preserving habitats.  We are an active club that participates in many conservation programs. With Trout in the Classroom, we raise trout from eggs and release the young fish into cooler, cleaner waters of the wild.  We must travel further north in our county to a higher elevation in order to find a suitable habitat as the streams near our school are too warm for the trout to live and survive. We also have created an official Bluebird Trail of 21 nesting boxes on school grounds to help create habitats for cavity nesters.  Each spring, students begin monitoring the bluebird nesting boxes, recording data on cavity nesting birds.  Annual data is sent to the Virginia Bluebird Society to help support the survival of endangered native species such as the bluebirds. Currently, we are building a school yard garden and including a Monarch Waystation where we will plant milkweed plants and other host plants for the monarchs as well as other important pollinators. Rain barrels have also been installed to help collect and conserve rainwater. Learning first hand, the need for these conservation projects, students are empowered and can take steps to help control the changes in our climate.

In addition to school projects, I have become a beekeeper. I now have 3 beehives and hope to have more this year. I have become a weather watcher, a plant watcher and a bee watcher! My response to climate change is also changing.  It has become more urgent…

Christine Jacoby has been recording natural phenomena in Madison County, Virginia, for 35 years.

My recording of rain and snow began in 1980.  I have in hand records from 2008 – 2013, varying from 47 inches of rain in 2010 to 60 inches in 2013, and no snow in 2008 to 57 inches in 2010. I believe that many of our problems are caused by mans’ interference of the natural order.  Fifty years ago, the property I now occupy was rocky, eroded cow pasture; 40 years ago it was planted in loblolly pine as a cash crop, never harvested.  Twenty-five years ago it was attacked by pine bark beetle and destroyed.  The first wave of Virginia pines is now dying out and being replaced by native hardwoods and white pine.

Hemlock is a marginal inhabitant that grew on higher north slopes; any attempt to grow it elsewhere is doomed to fail.  There are many plants that we put on our landscapes that are not quite right there – they suffer during extremes of weather or in wrong site or soil.  Examples are lawns, rosemary, roses, hemlock, white birch, red-twig dogwood – and the list goes on.  Keeping them alive artificially, with water, insecticides, fertilizer, does not help our environment.  There is irrefutable evidence that our climate is changing; polar icecaps are melting and the Chesapeake Bay is sinking.  What needs to change are the choices we make – what plants we choose, what fuels we burn, how we become better stewards of the hand we are dealt.

Dierdre Clarke is a Master Naturalist in rural Virginia and she also travels around the U.S.A.

I can offer a few experiences and observations that could just as easily be attributed to the vagaries of weather as to evidence of climate change.

So, weather events –

1. The derecho – that was a “sit up & take notice” event.  We now leave our  window screens on all year to protect windows from flying debris.

2.  Hurricane Sandy – picture our surprise at being stuck in Denver at the end of Oct. b/c of the impacts of that storm! Had it been a blizzard in Denver, the surprise factor would have been considerably less.

3.  Last summer, we experienced only 2 thunderstorms in Orlean, not the usual situation.

4.  B/c of what seems to be an increasingly hardy insect population (ticks, gnats, mosquitos), I’ve taken to wearing long sleeves & long pants all year,  using insect repellants with marginal success and have attached a fine mesh netting to my yard-work hat.  Yes – I’ve become the wackie neighbor – certainly as far as appearance goes.

5.  As for vegetation – we’ve noticed what appears to be an invasion of Japanese stilt grass along the edge of our woods, bulbs pop up a full month earlier than even 5 years ago, and alanthus is an increasingly vigorous intruder, again, along the edge of our woods.

6.  Until 2 years ago, our daughter lived in Atlanta.  Our summer visits there were becoming increasingly uncomfortable b/c of what seemed to be higher temps, higher humidity and heavy storms.  She has moved to Denver where the summer temperatures are on the rise.  This is apparent from the sudden interest in a/c.

7.  Last summer we spent some time w/my sister in Santa Fe.  Their constant concern with nearby wild fires and personal smoke/air management definitely made an impression.

8.  While travelling through CO & NM last summer, we were forced to select alternate routes on several occasions b/c of wildfires. Impacts from these fires had disrupted power in several areas – no working ATMs, gas pumps, etc.

9.  We’re learning to expect anything at any time.

10.  And, we’re paying attention!

Marc Malek has been a landscape designer for many decades, including 30 years with the National Park Service in locations throughout the U.S.

In 1962 I first became aware of the problem of increased warming.

In 1974 I saw evidence of glaciers retreating at record speed.

Now I feel greater heat from the sun, either the result of my age or hotter rays.

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