Spring's Alarm Clock Rings Early in 2012

Dandelions In Bloom, Numbrecht, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. Close

Dandelions In Bloom, Numbrecht, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.

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Dandelions In Bloom, Numbrecht, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.

The temperature in Montgomery County, Maryland, topped 60 degrees Fahrenheit last weekend. Bright atmospheric conditions couldn't dissuade my four-year-old daughter and me from heading indoors to ice-skate (first time!). As we walked to the car afterwards, M. noticed a dandelion, which she picked and marveled at. My two thoughts: First, that's extremely weird for Jan. 8, and second, she has no idea how weird it is.

Dandelions, crocuses, cherries and hydrangeas are blooming around the Washington metropolitan area. "They don't have clocks," said Laura Miller, the county's forest conservation coordinator, when I called her yesterday. "They just have to hit a certain cold [temperature] for a certain period of time," before they reset for spring. Unseasonably warm weather and the lengthening days of sunshine were enough to trick the dandelions.

Rising temperatures in the summer have been more destructive than in the winter -- think Texas 2011 or Russia 2010 -- but it’s the winters that are warming the most, according to an often cited 2004 study in the journal Climate Dynamics (and explained here by science writer John Cook). Statistically, nobody's linked this particular dandelion or this particular warm spell to the long-term rise in global temperatures. But it's like driving through a neighborhood and seeing foreclosure signs. While you can't link each foreclosure to the U.S. housing crisis, you know they represent something much bigger than themselves.

Nothing could be more innocent than a four-year-old picking a dandelion. It’s what it portends that worries me.

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