Forget the groundhog, scientists predict an earlier start to spring

Feb 4, 2013

The groundhog predicted an early spring this year -- and he isn't the only one.  Scientists now say that thanks to climate climate change, spring may arrive up to 17 days earlier in U.S. forests during the next century and that, could have an unexpected silver lining.

Could springtime slow down climate change?

A team of researchers from Princeton University looked at observations from a national tree ecology monitoring project.

They incorporated that data into different climate scenarios and focused particularly on the timing of bud burst in red maple trees, which are a common species in the northern U.S.

Compared to the late 20th century, the researchers estimated that red maple bud burst could be between a week to a month earlier by 2100.

The biggest changes would be seen in the Northern U.S., particularly in New York, Maine, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Dr. David Medvigy is an assistant professor at Princeton's department of geosciences, and he's the paper’s principal investigator. He says an earlier spring could be good news for climate change, since forests act as a carbon sink.

“Trees take more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. So that could potentially slow down climate change by some small degree," said Medvigy.

But a longer growing season could also cause disruptions to weather, the water cycle, and wildlife habitats.

Medvigy says it may also alter the types of trees that grow in the forest.

"If the growing season becomes longer for the deciduous trees, perhaps that may give them a competitive edge over the evergreen, needle-leaf trees, and it's possible that one could see that this might lead to a shift in the composition of some mixed forests in the eastern U.S," he said.

His work is part of a larger project looking at changes in both autumn and spring seasonality.

"We're currently working on trying to understand what controls changes in leaf color in the fall," says Medvigy.

He adds that this new research can be used to improve the accuracy of existing large-scale climate models.

The paper was published last week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters; it was funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.