Everybody likes to talk about the weather, it has been said, but no one does much about it.
While climatologists such as those at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab maintain that what happens on any given day is not necessarily related to any climate change, lots of people have nothing other than their own backyard observations to rely on. And for a lot of people those informal readings add up to global warming:
We got talking about the weather in the early days of winter, 2007, when the temperatures outside were more late spring than early winter. In a phone conversation with David Miller, retired banker who now is a devoted wilderness traveler and photographer, and co-founder of Gallery 14 in Hopewell, who was being profiled in the January 3 issue of U.S. 1, he offered an off-hand comment about the unseasonably warm weather.
In the past fall, Miller reported, an outfitter in Massachusetts who organizes hunting trips for Eider ducks closed up his operations early. “Because of the warm weather the ducks didn’t come that far south,” Miller said.
On a trip several years ago to Antarctica, Miller said that the natives reported more severe winter storms than usual. But they saw the storms as more evidence of global warming — they believed that the increased storm activity was due to larger areas of open water caused by melting of the ice cap, said Miller.
Wondering what other anecdotal evidence ordinary people might offer, we asked Carolyn Foote Edelmann, a dedicated naturalist and freelance writer, to round up some observations from outdoor-minded people:
Kate Johnson, a retired real estate salesperson and resident of Canal Pointe, came back to Princeton January 12 after a stay in California.
“When I came back, fruit trees were in bloom at my son’s Cherry Hill home, and right here on Heritage Boulevard. Weeping willows are as brassy as mid-March. Songbirds are singing, [not supposed to happen until breeding season.] One deer out the bathroom window this morning was so much smaller than the rest. He had all the awkwardness of youth, yet was obviously not starving. His coat looked healthy, gait steady. In a normal winter, that youngster would not have survived. There have also been a lot of bunnies the last two weeks — about a dozen. I don’t ever remember them [in winter].”
Mark Peel, president of Kingston’s Civic Research Institute and an avid birdwatcher:
A faithful steward of the birds, Peel notes “the little things — Carolina Wrens are regular visitors now” to his birdfeeders. “We never saw them when we first moved here. They are extending their range. Mockingbirds and cardinals used to be southern birds. Mockingbirds extended in the 1970s, and who knows when with cardinals?”
David Benner, “the Moss Man,” is renowned for having created a mossy haven around his Bucks County home. North of New Hope, across the Delaware at Center Bridge/Stockton, Benner long ago banished grass and welcomed moss to his wooded yard. Now he and his sons run Moss Acres, supplying savvy gardeners with this cushiony lawn-alternative, as well as providing tabletop moss and Zen gardens.
In past years Benner has hosted an annual “moss walk,” always in May, to showcase peak bloom for ephemerals. These are rare flowers that thrive on spring light, especially in their mossy surround, to vanish with the arrival of leaves and shade. But this year, when Moss mentioned the traditional May starting date, his son, Robert, interjected: “Dad, you know we have to start earlier now. When people wait until the end of May, the trees have already leafed out. All the ephemerals will be gone.”
Benner agreed. “We’re going to have to start in the last week of April — maybe earlier. I’ve been gardening [in Pennsylvania] for 30 years, and this is unprecedented. Everything’s a little earlier every year. This year might be worse, because everything was pushed in January. I am sure it’s from global warming,” he added, puzzling: “I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t believe it. The facts present themselves. Especially icebergs’ melting — you can’t argue with reality.”
Marilyn Schmidt, former pharmacologist with Johnson & Johnson and Squibb and others, is now proprietress of Buzby’s General Store in Chatsworth, “the Heart of the Pines.” (www.themoose.com/barnegat/buzby.html) At a tax sale, Schmidt rescued that storied site, where Pineys sat and gabbed around the old potbellied stove. She has shepherded the handsome structure, also her home, into both Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places. Schmidt is a certified master gardener, as well as author of some 20 volumes on Pinelands themes, The Washington Post regularly quotes from two of her books featuring seaside gardening.
Says Schmidt: “In Barnegat Light, [her world from the 1950s to 1998,] it always used to be colder than on the mainland. We’d have late springs and wicked snowstorms. The children made snow forts taller than they were.”
In her home near Barnegat Light, she recalls, “I would be snowed in regularly, absolutely could not open my door. Neighbors would check to see that I was all right.”
Jim Merritt, a writer and former editor of Princeton Alumni Weekly, now spends much of his time pursuing trout and other game fish. And yes, Merritt reports, the fishing is different these days.
Asked if he had noticed warming in any of his other outdoor pursuits, Merritt reported observing “a series of exceptionally warm falls. I like to fish for striped bass and bluefish at the Jersey Shore, especially Island Beach. They really come in close. Normally a protracted cold snap’ll take place in October, and out they go or down they go.” There was a careful pause, followed by, “The last few years, it’s been in the 60s in November. When there are cold snaps now, they are shorter and less bitter. Last December 21 I caught a couple striped bass at Island Beach. The water temperatures were also very high, even into December — they hadn’t fallen below 50 degrees.”
“Brook trout are the least heat tolerant,” Merritt said, even as he admitted that he cannot really ascribe trout fishing changes to global warming: “It could be changes to the river, to the ecology of the river,” he mused, citing “impervious surfaces, degraded watershed, fertilizer run-off, increased urbanization.”
But, he continued, “the feral brook trout could really become ‘the canary in the coal mine’. A rise in temperature of only 5 degrees would have a really significant effect upon native brook trout, already marginal in New Jersey.”
Joanna Tully, a photographer who participates in Gallery 14 in Hopewell, focuses on human nature in stunning black and white works, the most recent of which features locals at Coney Island.
In her Princeton Township yard, Tully reports, “first of all, in January, my magnolia trees were budding and some opened. Butterfly bushes, front and back, had the green leaves that they put out right before flowering. I saw a bee in January! Pink trees all along the front of Riverside School stayed open for weeks. Everywhere I went — wide stretches of grass as green and tall as May.”
Tully’s show-stopper, though, was the guest who, noticing robins hopping all over Joanna’s front yard in winter, 2007, insisted, “O, no those aren’t robins. That’s another species that looks just like robins. Robins go south in winter.”
Edelmann reported a backyard weather observation of her own: “Eerily, as I typed the line above, Valerie Meluskey, long-time friend and psychotherapist, called to report having seen three great horned owls in daylight yesterday. While mutually enthusing over her privileged sighting, Meluskey interrupted, ‘Carolyn, there’s a ton of robins in my yard. They’re staring at me!’ Valerie lives near the canal, in Montgomery Woods just north of Princeton. This is February.”
When the underlying causes are examined, some changes in the great outdoors turn out to have nothing to do with climate changes.
Mercer County’s Belle Mountain ski center in Hopewell Township — with its 190-foot vertical drop — did indeed close permanently in 1998 after several consecutive warm winters. But the same cannot be said about New Hope’s annual winter festival, which was not held this winter. The cause of the current suspension was not the weather, but rather a shortage of volunteers.
Some environmental observers may recall the ice pond that was constructed in the early 1980s along with the energy-conserving office buildings on Research Way in the Princeton Forrestal Center. The plan was to create a mound of ice 40 feet high during the winter months and then draw melted water from the ice mound in the warm months and pass it through a heat exchange coil in the buildings to cool the offices.
The ice pond no longer exists, but it was not the victim of global warming. Rather, says Tom Stange of National Business Parks, the company that oversees the property, the problem was mechanical in nature. Pipes shifted and cracked, and it became an expensive proposition.