If this year is anything like the last ten thousand, then a vast array of bushes, trees, bulbs, and seedlings will be bursting into bloom over the next few months across the northern hemisphere. In the Chesapeake Bay, whose rivers and streams range over six states and the District of Columbia (including nearly all of Maryland), spring is defined as the first day with water temperatures over 15 degrees Celsius (57 degrees F).
By that definition, spring occurred roughly three weeks earlier in the 1990s than in the 1960s. One might predict, therefore, that flowering plants whose bud burst is regulated by temperature would show their first buds earlier as spring temperatures are reached earlier in the year, and that we could observe this trend over the course of just ten or twenty years. If you want to see climate change in your backyard, you could keep track of when the flowers bloom.
But although ten years is a blip in the life of the planet, it’s a long time for a person to wait for results. If only there were a way to speed things up and see the effects of climate change sooner, to take a leap into the future.
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Well, volunteers at the Maryland Science Center are gearing up to do just that.
Hot Times In The City
Rather than wait for the future to arrive, researchers from the Maryland Science Center have found a way to study the future now. They can do this because in cities everywhere, the climate has already changed – not just as a result of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases (the main culprits of global warming), but also due to the stuff that cities are made of. Paved streets and dense buildings trap heat and keep the air in cities several degrees warmer than it would be otherwise. This phenomenon, called the Urban Heat Island Effect, keeps the temperature in cities higher than in surrounding suburbs and rural areas year-round.
Urban Heat Islands can provide a glimpse into the future, when suburban and rural areas will be warmer due to global climate change. Cities also experience inversions that trap carbon dioxide low down with the warm air, which creates a simulation of the increased carbon dioxide levels expected to occur globally in the future. Will plants grow differently in the warmer, carbon dioxide-rich air predicted by current models of climate change? Today’s cities may hold the answer.
As part of the C3 project, for which ScienCentral is a media partner, the Maryland Science Center will work with citizen scientists (school groups, gardeners, and other volunteers) to gain a better understanding of how global warming may affect some of Maryland’s native plants. They will do this by studying plants grown in urban heat islands, measuring how they grow and when their first buds burst compared to similar plants grown in suburban or rural areas.
I’m wagering that the volunteers will make some interesting discoveries. On New Year’s Day, in what ought to have been the start of winter, the daffodils around my Baltimore City mailbox were already sending up green shoots. In late January, melting snow revealed new buds forming on a neighbor’s hydrangea. One local anecdote does not a global phenomenon make, but sheesh — talk about an early spring!
Do you have similar anecdotes to offer? Please leave them in the Comments section!
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Maryland Science Center-volunteer for the C3 project
Carol Berkower is a mathematician and molecular biologist living in Baltimore.
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