There's no denying the lower 48 has had an unseasonably warm winter thus far. A balmy winter season may seem like a well-needed reprieve that we all should celebrate, but scientists warn there are consequences for such imbalance in a temperate climate where animals, plants and even us humans are specifically adapted for four seasons.
Expect to see increased numbers of biting insects out earlier than usual this year. Cold weather triggers diapause—a prolonged sleep period similar to hibernation that occurs in insects like mosquitoes, flies and ticks. Without the cold necessary to put them to sleep, these insects will have more time to reproduce, increasing their numbers. Typically we see these insect populations peak in late summer. This year, we could see a population spike much earlier. Biting insects also serve as vectors for certain blood borne diseases, like West Nile (transferred by mosquitoes) and Lyme Disease (carried by deer ticks). If there is an increase in these insect populations, we could see a greater number of humans contracting these illnesses, and earlier. A lack of cold weather allows pathogens to proliferate too. Gardeners and farmers could see above average rates of disease in produce as a result.
Traditional Native practitioners of food and medicine are also experiencing difficulty due to the mild winter. Dr. Ed Galindo, (Yaqui) a faculty member at the University of Idaho, and an affiliate faculty member at both Idaho State University (Biology), and Utah State University (Physics), is working with a Frank Finley (Salish Kootenai), a faculty member at Salish Kootenai College, who is researching the effects of this mild winter on plants and wildlife.
"What we are finding is that native plants are coming out of winter hibernation very early and they are smaller in size. This is a concern for tribal members, mainly Elders, who have a set 'time' in their minds when to look for the plants and may have a hard time seeing them," Dr. Galindo warns.
Another concern is that after months of mild winter, we’ll see a sudden freeze after plants and crops have already begun to de-winterize. If a budding plant freezes, it will likely die before the growing season has even begun.
Fauna are being affected by a warmer winter season too. Dr. Galindo states, "As far as animals, we have seen migration patterns start to change as well. For example, many geese that use to go south for the winter now stay year round. I worry about this as they may not find all the food they need for the winter and they will have their young that now will stay year round."
Amphibians are particularly susceptible to cold temperatures, and a lack of snowfall prevents them from finding the insulation they need to survive, especially if a freeze occurs after a mild winter.
Warmer temps could fool hibernating animals into leaving their dens much earlier. This could present a danger to humans who live in areas where they may come into contact with a bear that’s been awakened too early from his typically long winter’s nap.
Those who raise animals or livestock could also see an increase in diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites.
Fish like the salmon are more susceptible to bacterial kidney disease (BKD) in warm water. Infection by BKD causes significant mortality among wild and farmed salmon alike.
While one could argue that the warmer winter will enable animals to find more food and produce more offspring, the danger therein is a population boom is nearly always followed by a subsequent population crash.
This year, forest fires could also become an increased danger to flora as well as fauna. Mild temperatures and a lack of significant snowfall have led to drier conditions in many areas, dramatically increasing the opportunity for forest fires to take place.
The effects of a mild winter are far reaching, as Dr. Galindo cautions: "These weather patterns affect not only the two-legged, but our plants, and winged and four-legged animals. This is also very specific for the area. For example, the further north, the more dramatic the changes are on animals, plants and people."