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Delayed Onset and Early Departure of Winter Reflect Changing Climate, Scientists Say

Shorter winters and hotter temperatures are expected to lead to rising seas that cause worse flooding during heavy storms.

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Sun rays spill through a gap between the clouds and the White Mountains as the skies begin to clear above Bartlett, New Hampshire, Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. The first weekend of autumn is expected to be unusually warm with temperatures expected to reach the upper 80s. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
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Washington, October 29, 2017 : Winter is coming … later. And it’s leaving ever earlier.

Across the United States, the year’s first freeze has been arriving further and further into the calendar, according to more than a century of measurements from weather stations nationwide.

Scientists say it is yet another sign of the changing climate, and that it has good and bad consequences for the nation. There could be more fruits and vegetables — and also more allergies and pests.

“I’m happy about it,” said Karen Duncan of Streator, Illinois. Her flowers are in bloom because she’s had no frost this year yet, just as she had none last year at this time, either. On the other hand, she said just last week it was too hot and buggy to go out — in late October, near Chicago.

The trend of ever later first freezes appears to have started around 1980, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of data from 700 weather stations across the U.S. going back to 1895 compiled by Ken Kunkel, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information.

To look for nationwide trends, Kunkel compared the first freeze from each of the 700 stations to the station’s average for the 20th century. Some parts of the country experience earlier or later freezes every year, but on average freezes are coming later.

Average first freeze

The average first freeze over the last 10 years, from 2007 to 2016, is a week later than the average from 1971 to 1980, which is before Kunkel said the trend became noticeable.

This year, about 40 percent of the Lower 48 states had a freeze as of October 23, compared with 65 percent in a normal year, according to Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the private service Weather Underground.

Duncan’s flowers should be dead by now. According to data from the weather station near her in Ottawa, Illinois, the average first freeze for the 20th century was October 15. The normal from 1981 to 2010 based on NOAA computer simulations was October 19. Since 2010, the average first freeze is on October 26. Last year, the first freeze in Ottawa came on Nov. 12.

Last year was “way off the charts” nationwide, Kunkel said. The average first freeze was two weeks later than the 20th century average, and the last frost of spring was nine days earlier than normal.

ALSO READ Hottest in History: India faced the Warmest Winter this year due to Global Warming, says Study

Overall the United States freeze season of 2016 was more than a month shorter than the freeze season of 1916. It was most extreme in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon’s freeze season was 61 days shorter than normal.

Global warming has helped push the first frosts later, Kunkel and other scientists said. Also at play, though, are natural short-term changes in air circulation patterns, but they, too, may be influenced by man-made climate change, they said.

This shrinking freeze season is what climate scientists have long predicted, said University of Oklahoma meteorology professor Jason Furtado.

Some plants suffer

A shorter freeze season means a longer growing season and less money spent on heat. But it also hurts some plants that require a certain amount of chill, such as Georgia peaches, said Theresa Crimmins, a University of Arizona ecologist. Crimmins is assistant director of the National Phenology Network. Phenology is the study of the seasons and how plants and animals adapt to timing changes.

Pests that attack trees and spread disease aren’t being killed off as early as they normally would be, Crimmins said.

climate
Morning dew covers berries in Bartlett, N.H., Sept. 18, 2017. Despite forecasts for brilliant foliage throughout the Northeast this year, longtime leaf watchers said the leaves this fall were dull and weeks behind schedule in their turn from green to the brilliant hues of autumn. VOA

In New England, many trees aren’t changing colors as vibrantly as they normally do or used to, because some take cues for when to turn from temperature, said Boston University biology professor Richard Primack.

Clusters of late-emerging monarch butterflies are being found far farther north than normal for this time of year, and are unlikely to survive their migration to Mexico.

Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said natural variability, especially an El Nino, made last year exceptional for an early freeze, but “it represents the kind of conditions that will be more routine in a decade or two” because of man-made climate change.

“The long-term consequences are really negative,” said Primack, because shorter winters and hotter temperatures are also expected to lead to rising seas that cause worse flooding during heavy storms.

In suburban Boston, Primack and his wife are still eating lettuce, tomatoes and green beans from their garden. And they are getting fresh figs off their backyard tree almost daily.

“These fig trees should be asleep,” Primack said. (VOA)

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Sundarbans’ activists are against the upcoming NTPC power plant in the area

Local activists said that with the assurance of cheap power from the project, over 300 industrial units, 190 within ECA, had made a beeline to the area. "Had you visited the region a few years back, you would've found a different Poshur," Jamil said.

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A diesel ferry cuts through the Poshur river -- the lifeline of Sundarbans -- with travelers watching its heavily industrialized bank, which is rapidly increasing at the cost of world’s largest contiguous mangrove forest.
Sundarbans, wikimedia commons

A diesel ferry cuts through the Poshur river — the lifeline of Sundarbans — with travelers watching its heavily industrialized bank, which is rapidly increasing at the cost of world’s largest contiguous mangrove forest.

Activists are looking with a wary eye at the upcoming 1,320 MW coal-based power project being set up by India’s NTPC, a mere 14 km north of the Sundarban Reserve Forests and four kilometres from the Ecologically Critical Area (ECA), which they say would pose a threat to the wildlife and dependent communities.

The Maitree Super Thermal Power Project at Rampal in Khulna division is being constructed in an area of over 1,832 acres on the eastern bank of Poshur. In August 2010, a pact was signed between India and Bangladesh to set up the project.

Also Read: Meet 87 yr old Shila Ghosh, who toils hard to earn a living but scorns media hype 

While journalists and protestors are not allowed near the project, a small group of visiting journalists from India could see for themselves the massive erosion, waterless canals, huge waterway traffic, oil spills and major infrastructure coming up along the river.

Some 10 km before the busy Mongla Port is a broad 5.5 km-long road west of the Mongla-Khulna highway that goes to the project site. Around this road there were some 5,000 families which were displaced, we are told.

Sushanto Das, one of the land owners in Bagerhat district, lost over 33 acres of land. “My house was burned down by the local goon with support of the local Member of Parliament. I approached the court. Now they don’t even allow us to protest at the site,” he told IANS from his residence in Ranjitpur, a town between Khulna and Sunderbans.

As per official count, Sundarbans had 180 tigers in 2015. Now, those in the area are under threat.
NTPC Ramagundam, wikimedia commons

At places, the river, along this special economic zone, has become much broader because of excessive erosion of its banks. Ferrymen say that because of this, the Poshur is becoming more aggressive. The western bank, where forest communities dwell and ECA begins, is also being industrialized.

A 2016 joint report by the governments of India and Bangladesh — and supported by the world bank — on the status of tigers in the Sundarbans, a copy of which is with IANS, criticized this coal-fired project, saying it would further “exacerbate the problem” of climate change, pollution and tiger conservation. As per official count, Sundarbans had 180 tigers in 2015. Now, those in the area are under threat.

The report, which labels vessels plying on the Poshur as “mobile bombs”, reminds everyone of the December 2014 incident when 358,000 liters of oil spilled into the Sela.

Spread across 10,000 sq km — of which 62 per cent is in Bangladesh — the Sundarbans, lying in the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal, were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997. For Bangladesh, it accounts for 44 per cent of its forest area, generating 50 percent of the forest revenue from tourism, fishery and the sale of honey.

A wetland of global importance, the ecosystem saves the inlands from cyclones, stabilizes sediments and makes the region a nursery of major fisheries, playing a key role in food security.

“All this stand threatened. The power plant is located to make best use of the river but existing power industries are already discharging effluents into the river and ash in the atmosphere,” Dr Abdullah Harun Chowdhury, Professor Environment Science at Khulna University, told IANS, warning of a micro-climate change altering different patches of the Sundarbans.

With warming of water, Chowdhury observed that soil quality had dropped and salinity in the area had increased over time, threatening its flora and fauna. “The government doesn’t check how natural resources are being overexploited. The DoE (Department of Environment) gives license to industries under pressure,” Chowdhury said.

UNESCO and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global organization, have already raised an alarm over the Rampal project. “There is only one Sundarbans in the world, once destroyed, no amount of money could replicate it,” he said.

The $1.6 billion power project is controlled by Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Company Ltd (BIFPCL), a 2012 private venture comprising India’s NTPC and the Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB). India’s Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (BHEL) is constructing the plant which is scheduled to start operations in 2019.

Spread across 10,000 sq km -- of which 62 per cent is in Bangladesh -- the Sundarbans, lying in the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal, were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997.
NTPC logo, wikimedia commons

Queries sent to NTPC and BIFPCL went unanswered.

Ironically, India plans to phase out coal-power and not sanction any new project after 2022.

While the Bangladesh government has judged the project location to be at a “safe” distance from the mangrove forest, facts suggest otherwise.

According to a Bangladesh’s Department of Environment (DoE) document, available with IANS, several “red-category” industries — oil refinery, ship building, cement, gas cylinder, brick kilns, LPG, saw mills and

others — operate deep within the ECA across Khulna, Bagerhat and Satkhir districts. Also, a railway line is being set up there to import coal from West Bengal to Jessore.

The Bangladesh government in 1999 declared a 10 km radius from the reserve forest as ECA. However, DoE permitted setting up of over 190 industries, located 1.5 to 9 km from the forest reserve, of which 24 units are listed as “Red” or “extremely harmful”, 63 are “Orange (A)” or “harmful” and 103 are “Orange (B)” or “less-harmful”. Not a single industry within ECA is “Green” or “safe”.

According to environment experts, heavy industrialization in the region had blocked canals, eroded the banks and sunk several villages. “Over 50,000 people suffered, mostly from the minority Hindu community, and many have migrated to India,” environmentalist Sharif Jamil from Bangladesh Poribesh Andolan (BAPA) told IANS.

Local activists said that with the assurance of cheap power from the project, over 300 industrial units, 190 within ECA, had made a beeline to the area. “Had you visited the region a few years back, you would’ve found a different Poshur,” Jamil said.

Sundarbans has thousands of interconnected canals which balances the pressure on the main river.

“Industries level those canals, putting extra pressure on the river, causing erosion,” Jamil said, adding that Banishanta, Laudob, Shelabuniya, Amtali, Sindurtala, Kalabari and Joymoni areas suffered the maximum erosion.

Also Read: Russia puts world’s first floating nuclear plant into sea

“Crocodile nestings have vanished from Joymoni near Mongla, tiger too,” Professor Chowdhury said, adding that a “proper study” was difficult since the government doesn’t allow it.

According to academicians in Dhaka, an anti-India feeling is slowly taking shape. Some locals who were affected told IANS that they had got death and rape threats and were attacked by musclemen while protesting. Several refused to talk. Many cases have landed in the courts.

“We approached the Left parties in India too for help. But D. Raja (National Secretary of the Communist Party of India) told us that they cannot help as Bangladesh itself had asked for it (the power plant),” Anu Muhammad, Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University, Dhaka, told IANS. He was later denied a visa to attend a conference in New Delhi. Even a tourist visa to India was declined. (IANS)