Where did winter go? Birds, bees and some Londoners are confused

LONDON -- Bees are buzzing, flowers are blooming and trees are budding across southern England after a topsy-turvy 12 months, yet it is still mid-winter. While people scratch their heads over stark changes, woodpeckers are plunging into an abnormally early mating season.

The coldest December on record in 2010 was followed by the warmest and driest spring, bringing with it widespread drought that remains in force across many areas of southern and eastern England after the second warmest and driest autumn since 1910.

So dry had it been and so low the water levels had sunk in their reservoirs in early December that the water agency in charge of supplies in the densely populated southeast of the country applied for a drought order to allow it to take urgent steps to alleviate the situation -- a move the department of environment said had only happened once before in winter, in 2003.

Some fairly heavy rains in December did help alleviate the problem, but while reservoirs have been partly replenished, many are still well below normal levels for this time of year, and soil moisture levels are equally low, prompting the Environment Agency to warn that unless more normal rainfall returns for the rest of the winter, the ongoing drought could bite harder in the spring and summer.

"Contingency plans are in place. We are talking to water authorities, businesses and farmers about water conservation," an Environment Agency spokeswoman told ClimateWire. "Some farmers who have permits to abstract water from rivers are facing restrictions. They are also looking at the possibility of switching to hardier, drought-resistant crops if it becomes necessary."

But at the same time, U.K. Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman told a farming conference last week that while climate change would bring more droughts, British agriculture should embrace the positive side of more frequent warmer winters meaning longer growing seasons and the possibility of producing crops like melons, peaches and sunflowers more usually associated with more exotic climes.

Days of wine and roses

At the same conference, a presentation by English wine producers complained that so many vineyards were now being planted that the country's recent and hard-won reputation for producing quality wines could be undermined.


But it is the effects on nature and wildlife that are more immediately noticeable, albeit less easy to assess.

The abnormally warm autumn and the fact that across the southeast of the country at least the onset of winter has been typified by an almost complete lack of frosts, let alone the deep blanket of snow that shrouded the entire country at this time last year, have produced some startling anomalies.

Late-blooming flowers like roses and myrtle that would normally have become dormant months ago are still in full bloom in many areas, and some varieties of spring flowers like wild daffodils are already awake -- several weeks earlier than normal.

"It is the first New Year I have ever known to open with plants still in bloom from the previous year," said botanist Sandra Bell of London's world renowned Kew Gardens. "And it is very early for spring plants to begin blooming."

"If we get a sharp frost now, it will make them drop their flowers and put them back to sleep but probably do them no lasting damage. Plants are very adaptable. They have to be to survive. But what concerns me is that honeybees and bumblebees are already up and about, confused by the warm weather.

"They use a lot of energy foraging, yet there is still very little for them to find. That could hurt the hive, which in turn might have an impact on plants later on because bees are prolific pollinators," she added.

Then again, if the climate is changing and some hardier species of bees learn to overwinter actively while others continue to stay warm in their hives, come the advent of spring, those active species will have the advantages of location and vigor over their neighbors, changing the natural mix.

"At the moment, we just don't know which way it is going," said Bell.

Immigrant pests compete with more local ones

The lack of winter kill-off may also affect the survival of pests and diseases that are usually heavily depleted by ice and snow.

Some insect pests, such as the horse chestnut leaf miner moth, more usually associated with central Europe but resident on an increasingly large area of southern England since first being discovered in the lawn tennis mecca of London's Wimbledon in 2002, have already made the move.

And in any case, even icy weather would not necessarily harm them, as they come from colder regions to start with.

But other insect pests may take the opportunity provided by the abnormally warm winter so far to make inroads they would normally be denied the chance of -- by expanding either their numbers or their territory.

"If we don't get a winter, there will certainly be the potential for insect pests to survive and prosper," Bell said. "We will have to wait and watch."

"It is the kind of event that you would associate with climate change. But there is so much variation year to year that it is impossible to attribute it to that cause in any one year. However, what is very clear is that over the past 50 years, flowering times have advanced by several weeks," she added.

And while there have been occasional sightings of birds that would normally have migrated south long ago to spend the winter in warmer countries, the most noticeable effect of the warm autumn and winter is that some species that always tough out the winter have been fooled into thinking that spring has already arrived.

Mating season? Already?

"Some birds have been seen collecting nesting material already, and woodpeckers have been heard drumming -- a noise they make to declare their territory at the start of the mating season and which signals the start of spring," a spokesman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said.

The Met Office has given up making predictions more than a month ahead for the United Kingdom's weather after a couple of spectacular failures in recent years. It does, however, still make predictions for global temperatures.

It said last week that 2012 would be around half a degree Celsius above the long-term global average of 14.0 degrees with a range of 0.34 to 0.62 degrees, putting it back into the top 10 warmest years on records stretching back to 1850.

Last year, by contrast, was 0.36 degrees above the average from 1961 to 1990, according to the Met Office, a figure slightly below the World Meteorological Association's 0.41 degrees but still inside the predicted range of 0.28 to 0.60 degrees.

"While 2010 was a record warm year, in 2011 we saw a very strong La Niña, which can temporarily cool global temperatures," said Adam Scaife, head of monthly to decadal forecasting at the Met Office.

"The La Niña has returned, and although it is not as strong as early last year, it is still expected to influence temperatures in the year ahead. Therefore, we expect 2012 to be slightly warmer than last year but not as warm as 2010," he added.

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