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Spring officially began two days ago. But in many places across the country, much of the winter felt more like spring. Forty-seven states had a warmer-than-average winter. Americans were delighted by lower home heating bills over the past several months. But scientists say there’s a price to pay for the significantly warmer temperatures. Some regions can expect early allergy and wildfire seasons. And entomologists predict mosquitoes and flies will be showing up at back yard barbecues rudely early. Diane and her guests will talk about the effects of an exceptionally mild winter – and whether we’re in for a blistering summer.
- David Inouye Biologist, University of Maryland; researcher at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado.
- Dr. Michael Morris Otolaryngologist and allergist.
- Robert Henson Meteorologist; science writer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research; author of "The Rough Guide to Climate Change" and "Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. This has been the fourth warmest winter on record in the contiguous United States. In the past ten days, there have been more than 2,000 record highs across the country. Joining me in the studio to talk about the effects of the warm winter is biologist David Inouye and allergist Michael Morris. Joining us from a studio in Boulder, Colo. is Robert Henson, a meteorologist.
MS. DIANE REHMI'll be interested to hear your experiences from around the country. Join us by phone on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to all of you.
MR. DAVID INOUYEGood morning.
DR. MICHAEL MORRISGood morning.
MR. ROBERT HENSONGood morning.
REHMGood to have you all with us. Bob Henson, if I could start with you, I cannot remember a warmer Washington winter than is here in Washington, D.C. I wonder what it's been like around the rest of the country this winter.
HENSONWell, Diane, it has been very warm across a large part of the country especially in the central and east. If you picture a swath running from the Northern Plains, the Midwest over to the East coast, New England, Mid-Atlantic, that's kind of been the epicenter of the warmth.
HENSONAs you pointed out, the fourth-warmest winter for the lower 48 States, but actually the second-warmest winter in a lot of these regions, including D.C. so interestingly most of the warmest winters, you know, the top this year have been in the last 20 years and that's only a couple of them. So we are in a range of winters now that are a little out of a lot of our experiences.
REHMSo when I watch the weather reports in the evening, we see this huge stream going across the country. What is the cause of the warm weather we're having?
HENSONWell, it's a couple of things and I'd like to distinguish the winter which, in terms of meteorological winter, we refer to it as December, January, and February. That's the definition of winter as far as weather people go. Those three months were, you know, one of the warmest sets of December, January, and February in U.S. history. But March has really topped that. We had roughly 3600 record highs around the country in meteorological winter and only about 600 record lows so six times the number of highs versus lows.
HENSONIn March, just in the first three weeks of March, we have had more than 4,000 record highs so we've outdone winter in three weeks.
REHMWow and what is causing it?
HENSONWhat is causing it? Well, as with any weather feature that lasts a few weeks, it's difficult to pin a single cause to it. A couple of things, one is that the jet stream has mostly been retreated way to the north. There's a way of measuring this called the Arctic oscillation and that's a measure of the low pressure at the North Pole versus higher pressure to the south. And when that index is high as it was most of this winter, that indicates that the jet stream has retreated and kept cold air locked up in the Poles.
HENSONNow, you may recall last winter, of course, was much colder, although not exceptionally cold by historical standards. It seemed cold because it snowed a lot, but it was only maybe one in three coldest winters of the last 100 years. It was something like number 35 so in that winter, we had mostly a negative Arctic oscillation, which meant the jet stream was departing, dipping down into the U.S. and bringing cold air down.
HENSONSo that's one piece of the equation. There's also La Nina, which is a cooling in the tropical Pacific and the effects of that reverberate around the globe. So there are a lot of ingredients to this soufflé of warm weather and it's hard to know exactly which ingredient caused which flavor, but no doubt it's been remarkable.
REHMMeteorologist Robert Henson, he joins us from Boulder, Colo. David Inouye, what are some of the effects we can expect from light snowfalls, warmer temperatures as an early snow melts?
INOUYEWell, there are two factors that come into play here. One is the milder winter, which means that there are more insects surviving. Cold winters are one of the environmental variables that tend to knock back insect populations. The other variable is the earlier and warmer spring, which is resulting in much earlier flowering. And one way that scientists keep track of that is through a field of study called phenology and phenology refers to the timing of seasonal events. And those events are happening much earlier this year than they have historically.
REHMGive me an example.
INOUYEWell, I was talking with somebody yesterday who has been canvassing people who grow fruit trees in Maryland and they're reporting flowering two to as much as five weeks earlier than they would normally expect for flowering of fruit trees. And this is, in some ways, perhaps good, but it also sets us up for the potential for a real disaster. So in 2007, we had a similarly warm March, flowering started very early and then in April, the weather changed and we had a hard freeze for about five days and that affected at least 18 states in the U.S., mostly Midwest and East.
INOUYEAnd it ended up causing about $2.2 billion of economic damage to crops. It also was a disaster, well, ecological disaster, for, let's say Oak trees in this area. They had all started to leaf out and all those leaves got frost killed. So for a few weeks, the Oak trees had no leaves. In fact, most trees had lost their leaves or flowers that year and there's maybe still the potential for that to happen this year, too, if we get a similar cold spell in April.
REHMDavid Inouye, he's a biologist at the University of Maryland, long-time researcher at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado. And turning to you, Dr. Michael Morris, I know that people around here have been complaining about high pollen counts and allergies and the like. Is that, too, part of a warmer winter and an earlier spring?
MORRISYes, it tends to be something that we see this time of year. And this year in particular, this started happening earlier in February where pollen started appearing. And as an ear, nose and throat allergy doctor, it's often confusing to know whether it's a bacterial infection or an allergy because the symptoms are very much the same. But because of the availability now of pollen reports that appear, it's possible, as a physician, to know more about what's happening in the environment and this year there's been more pollen earlier in the year and a more diversification of pollen.
MORRISIn fact, some of the tree pollens that have been seen are things that I haven't seen in the last five to seven years.
REHMReally? Such as…
MORRISSuch as Cedar pollen. There are Cedar trees and Cedar Juniper trees in the Washington, Maryland area, but I've never seen such high levels of Cedar pollen. And this week, I've also seen Aspen tree pollen. Aspen tree pollen is something I've never seen in the Washington area. So the, you know, the advantage of having the technology to know what pollens appear in the air and to see what's changing as far as the type of pollens characterizes how that affects medical illness. And allergy and congestion can predispose to developing bacterial infections which also change or react to the environment being warmer.
MORRISThis year, I've seen a lot more atypical tonsillitis or atypical sinusitis. I tend to take cultures and figure out what's causing a person's infection often before prescribing antibiotics and looking at those culture results. And often when you see a patient with tonsillitis, both tonsils are infected, but I've seen a number of teenage or young adult patients this year that have had unilateral tonsillitis where only one tonsil is swollen. It's somewhat atypical. The patient is referred from a primary care doctor and it turns out to be an unusual infection of the tonsils.
REHMExplain to me, David Inouye, exactly what pollen is, how it begins to manifest itself and its usual timeline.
INOUYEWell, flowering plants make pollen, but the ones that are of concern for allergies are typically wind-pollinated plants and a number of them flower early in the spring. So a lot of trees are flowering this time of year and they don't make very conspicuous flowers. You'd probably never notice unless you look closely the flowers on an Oak tree, for instance, but they're there. They're producing lots of pollen because in order to ensure the pollination of Oak flowers to create all those acorns you have to make lots of pollen.
INOUYEAnd so sometimes when you go outside and look at your car and there will be a thin film of yellow on it and that's a coating of pollen. So it's blown in sometimes from some distance, but in other cases, it may just be grasses flowering in your yard that create that pollen cloud.
REHMBut the temperature, I gather, is affecting how dense the pollen is and when it comes out.
INOUYEWell, certainly the timing of flowering of trees is affected by temperature and that's one reason we're seeing such early flowering this year in response to the very warm temperatures. And in terms of abundance, some plants may have had better survival of buds during the winter because it was such a mild winter so that might be one reason why there's maybe more pollen as well as being early in the season.
REHMSo your patient load has gone up, Michael Morris?
MORRISYes, and the severity of illness has also increased because, unfortunately, increasing allergy symptoms can lead to increasing asthma symptoms. So in terms of how it affects people and disease, it's significant and not just something to read on the internet because people have much more severe asthmatic symptoms particularly children who are outside this time of year playing soccer and other sports. They're limited by increasing levels of pollen.
REHMSo in terms of the types of pollen you're seeing here in this region, what is the most prevalent type?
MORRISCurrently, the most prevalent pollens are tree pollens, Elm tree, Oak tree, Maple tree and some of these unusual trees that aren't normally seen in the area.
REHMOtolaryngologist and allergist Dr. Michael Morris, you can join us 800-433-8850. We'll be back after a short break.
REHMAnd of course, we've got lots of calls. Whenever you talk about the weather, allergies or bugs that may come out because of them you do hear from lots of folks around the country. And we'll certainly try to get to as many of your calls and emails as we can. David Inouye is here in the studio. He's a biologist at the University of Maryland. Dr. Michael Morris is an otolaryngologist and allergist in private practice here in the Washington area. Joining us from a studio in Boulder, Colo. Is Robert Henson, meteorologist and science writer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He's the author of "The Rough Guide to Climate Change."
REHMAnd you can join us by email, by phone, on Facebook or Twitter. Bob Henson, tell me about these growing seasons and how they have been affected by these changes in temperature.
HENSONWell, I'm very concerned, as David pointed out, about the fact it's warmed so early so quickly and over such a large area. I think a lot depends on the distribution of cold in a winter. It's not simply how cold was the winter. That number is calculated by averaging all the days across the whole 90-day period. But it's also critical when the freezes were. And this past winter, look just for, you know, a couple of examples in New York and D.C., there were only about a dozen days in New York City that got below 25 degrees. And that alone is impressive.
HENSONIt tended to be focused in January. The last snow in New York was in January, of any significance. In D.C. there have only be two days in the entire winter that got below 25 degrees. And since Valentine's Day there's only been one very light freeze. So really plants got off to a running start. And this is especially true in the Midwest, places like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan where they've had not only a mild late winter but this extraordinarily warm March, which is -- the number of records is unlike anything I've ever seen in terms of concentration and amount. So...
REHMAnd of course, tornados as well have entered in.
HENSONTornados as well and fairly far north for this time of year, although not really unprecedented. I mean, there have been tornado outbreaks in the upper Midwest in March and thereabouts some. One thing that I've noticed even the last several days is reports of trees budding out as far north as Marquette, Mich. And apparently a lot of apple trees in Iowa are now blooming and that's causing great concern because the average last freeze in many of these places is mid to late April. So you've got buds coming out, blossoms coming out and there's still more than a month where there could be a freeze.
HENSONThe temperature outlooks, the long range outlooks for April are keeping things fairly warm into at least the early part of the month. So, you know, fingers crossed they'll make it but there is some cause for concern.
REHMAnd of course, that is what happened a few years ago when you did have those fruit trees, the buds freeze and then prices went up and Florida had just a terrible time. Are you concerned about that this year, David Inouye?
INOUYEYes, there's a concern for that this year, but actually it's a growing trend. In my work in Colorado at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab, one of the things we've been keeping track of there is when the snow melts, because that's what sets the beginning of the growing season up at 9,500 feet. And that date has been getting earlier, which means the growing season starts earlier but the date of the last frost has not been changing. And that means that there now is a better chance if there're going to be flower buds developed at the time of the last hard frost, which is about the 10th of June at that altitude.
INOUYEAnd so one of the things that we've been seeing is a loss of flowering of some frost-sensitive species that's becoming more common and that has a number of affects for the animals that would normally use those flowers, including butterflies. We just published a study about a butterfly that requires nectar in order to make eggs to make caterpillars. And one of the plants that that butterfly really likes to visit is one that's frost sensitive. And so in years where we have a late frost and it kills the flower buds, the butterflies don't get as much nectar. Therefore they can't make as many eggs and therefore the population of butterflies is down the next year.
REHMInteresting. And here's a question about honeybees from -- it's an email that says, "We've been raising honeybees in the Detroit area for the past few years. This year, they never hibernated. The bees were out foraging in mid January with nothing to forage. Used up their food stores and starved to death. They never thinned down their numbers enough and there must have been 100,000 bees. I find this very unusual."
INOUYEWell, of course, honeybee colonies are perennial typically. And one reason they collect all that honey during the summer is in order to have enough energy to get through the winter. And in a year like this where it's not cold enough for them to stop foraging, they're out there looking for flowers. There are no flowers and that's an expensive activity to be out there flying around and, you know, so basically the colony ran out of energy. And commercial beekeepers also face that problem. So in order to keep those bee colonies alive to pollinate crops, for instance, the early almond flowering crops in California, they have to feed their colonies. And that's an expensive proposition.
REHMNow does that indicate we could see fewer honeybees this summer?
INOUYEWell, hobby beekeepers like the person who wrote in who don't go to the trouble and expense of feeding their colonies will probably lose more colonies than usual this year. The commercial beekeepers are probably doing all they can to keep those colonies alive. So there may be some decline but not too drastic I would suspect.
REHMMichael Morris, the question of trees and pollen also gets to the question of flowers and pollen. What flowers most typically create pollen problems for allergy sufferers?
MORRISDuring the course of the spring and summer in the Washington area, the type of things that contribute to pollen are first trees until the late spring followed by grass pollens. Grass pollinates in the early part of the summer. There's June grass in this area and then that continues through the middle of the summer. And then by August the weeds start pollinating. So the crossover occurs between trees, grass and weeds between February and November.
MORRISAnd what will happen because of the increasing amounts of pollen from these things that are growing, the total amount of pollen will probably be higher because of the overlap between the trees and the grasses and the weeds. And also the mixing of the air in the Washington area from the south and the north makes the tree season longer than normal because we get pollens from the south early in February when there generally isn't any pollinating trees around here. And we have tree pollen in June after the trees in the area have pollinated from the north.
MORRISSo that's why the Washington area tends to be a much more significant area for allergy sufferers than other parts of the country.
REHMAnd another email -- lots of people from around the northern half of the U.S. are saying that they're seeing early flowering of trees, early sightings of birds that concerns them. But they're happy their heating bills have been much lower this winter. Bob Henson, there are no free lunches. Isn't that right?
HENSONThat's absolutely right. There are interesting tradeoffs to be had and I think that's part of what's going on. You know, the trend has been toward, you know, more and warmer winters and earlier springs. And those tradeoffs are interesting. I think we're going to have to learn to adapt to some of these things in one way or another. I notice that offices of the weather service, for example, in Chicago, have been putting out special statements the last several days saying, don't put your plants in, even though it feels like you can because there's still another freeze probably coming in April. So that's something I haven't seen much of before.
REHMAnd indeed we're also wondering about how this mild winter might affect the weather this summer. Is there a correlation between mild winters and very hot summers, Bob Henson?
HENSONWell, the short answer is not a very strong one. There's so many variables in the weather mix that by the time you go from a winter season to a summer season all kinds of things could've intervened. Ocean currents may have changed and so forth. The one area where there is something of a memory in the climate system is in the land and ice. And one thing that's noteworthy is that the Great Lakes have essentially lost all their ice. This is earlier than ever before.
HENSONIn fact, some recent measurements in southern Lake Michigan have the water temperatures in the 40s, which is roughly 10 degrees warmer than the previous record or about 10 degrees warmer than where it would be this time of year and on par with what you would see in late May or early June. So with the water being so warm, I think that's going to help keep it warm in the Midwest as spring progresses, although it won't prevent a frost or freeze.
REHMWhat's that going to do to the fish?
HENSONThat's something I can't answer. Perhaps one of the other two guests can.
REHMWhat do you think, David Inouye?
INOUYEWell, as a plant biologist, I can speculate...
REHMYou're not sure either.
INOUYE...but I think that there are a number of fish that probably respond to water temperature in terms of their migrations and in terms of their reproduction. So I would be willing to guess that we're likely to see early reproduction by some of those fish.
REHMThat's interesting. Let's open the phones and go to Wolcottville, Ind. Sean, you're on the air.
SEANHi, Diane. Yeah, just to kind of respond to that fish. I actually live on a lake up here in northern Indiana near Michigan border and the bass are actually already coming in to spawn right now. That was kind of my question is, you know, they're spawning early. And do you see any problems with that?
REHMYeah, that's the issue, early spawning and whether that creates a problem for the species.
INOUYEYeah, I don't know whether a cold spell like we had in 2007, would then drop the water temperatures enough to be a problem for the bass that started to spawn early. I'm afraid I can't answer that.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Rockford, Ill. Good morning, Ken.
KENGood morning, Diane. My question is for Robert Henson -- excuse me. I'm wondering what affect the recent solar flare activity has had with the current warming that we're experiencing.
HENSONThat's a good question. I would say probably very, very little if any. The variations in the sun are mostly in the ultraviolet range. They produce spectacular effects in terms of Auroras and can affect GPS navigation and cause all kinds of havoc in the telecommunication realm. But they don't actually change the total amount of energy coming from the sun that much. It's mostly in this ultraviolet range. And so there's relatively little effect if any on kind of day-to-day, week-to-week weather that anyone's been able to discern. So that's some reassurance.
KENOkay, thank you.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. And to Houston, Texas. Good morning, Karen.
KARENGood morning. I have a question for your allergist.
KARENDo you think that the buildup of yeast in the body has anything to do with sinusitis or the increase of sinusitis in children?
MORRISWell, that's been a question that has been passed back and forth in medicine for many years, yeast and the role it plays in human health. As far as how it may contribute to allergies I can't answer that directly. But certainly any type of colonization that you may have from a microorganism such as yeast would have some affect on your overall health and the challenge to your overall immune system.
MORRISBut yeast, like other organisms, is opportunistic. And as a consequence it's uncertain what it means when a person has ill health because it's often found in most people.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." The question I have is what do you do for allergies these days? If you know that you do have a particular allergy how are you treating it?
MORRISWell, if you know of an allergy and you know that you have allergies during different times of the year, the best thing to do is start medical treatment before you have the allergy symptoms. If you know that you're going to have allergies in the early spring it's better to start the over-the-counter antihistamine in the later part of the winter. Once you start the medication it takes a while for the medications to reach a certain therapeutic level.
MORRISSo knowing what time of the day is better in terms of allergies, allergies are more common or pollen's more of a problem at the ground level in the morning versus the afternoon. After it rains a lot of the pollen is washed out of the air. But anticipation is a good way to control allergies.
REHMBut suppose you've gone through life very luckily and have never experienced allergy and all of a sudden as an adult you find your eyes reddening and your nose running and you think you have a cold and you diagnose it rather as an allergy. How often does that happen?
MORRISThat happens frequently because of two things. One, the environment keeps changing. So you may have moved to Washington five or six years ago without any allergies, but exposed to the new environment of Washington it takes three to five years to develop your allergy symptoms. And then number two, the actual trees that cause allergy symptoms or the grasses or the weeds fluctuate from year to year. Some years are worst than other years for many people with allergies and that has to do with what I see as a regular up and down of the allergy season and the pollen levels that occur.
REHMYou mean sometimes it's much worst.
MORRISCorrect. Even without a warm winter it does go up and down.
REHMBut, you know, why do adults who've never had that kind of experience who -- I mean, I've lived here all my life. I've never experienced allergies until this year, sort of eyes burning.
MORRISWell, historically allergies weren't noticed in the United States until the 1870s. So allergy is not a normal natural phenomenon. The first mention of allergies was in western Massachusetts in 1873 in the medical literature. And over the past several years, it's been suggested that currently more than half of the people in the United States have allergies. So the development of allergies really comes from the human influence on the environment. By changing a natural world by planting trees, by planting grass, by salt runoff from roads during the winter, that all encourages the growth of plants that cause allergies.
REHMSo we're seeing more different kinds, lots of pollen. It's a good thing you're in practice, Dr. Morris. And also here in the studio, David Inouye, a biologist at the University of Maryland. And on the line with us, Robert Henson, meteorologist. We'll take a short break and be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back as we talk about this warm winter so many of us have had enjoyed. I want to ask about ticks and to what extent we might see more mosquitoes, more ticks, more ants, perhaps, David Inouye.
INOUYEWell, I can speak from personal experience about the ants. We've already found ants inside our house active this spring. But, yes, the mild winter means that many more insects have survived than might normally manage to survive the winter. And the early warm season means that they're coming out earlier. And so ticks do seem to be active already.
INOUYEThat's a potential problem for humans because of the diseases that ticks carry, especially Lyme disease in this area. But there are a lot of wildlife that also have problems from ticks and are likely to be more at risk this year. So, for instance, it's not too uncommon for moose calves to actually lose so much blood to ticks that they die. And so it's possible that this year will be a bad one for moose calves.
REHMAnd what about mosquitoes?
INOUYEWell, mosquitoes are going to get an early start and some of them have also probably survived in higher numbers than they would normally survive the winter. So I think we can predict that we'll be seeing them soon and in greater abundance than we want.
REHMAnd Michael Morris would you be seeing more patients who are allergic to, for example, mosquito bites?
MORRISWell, many people have an allergic reaction to a mosquito bite. Rarely do we see people that have more significant swelling from a mosquito bite. But part of the change in the environment and how that would affect the respiratory tract is in the microbiology of illness. With the changes in the tick population or changes in the fish population there has to be changes in the microbiology population with bacteria, viruses and...
MORRIS...Fungal elements causing infections.
REHMAnd here's a question for you, Bob Henson, from David. Sorry, it's from Alexander and he says, "There are some experiments about to take place from the east coast of Virginia, rockets dropping a chemical into the upper atmosphere to track and study the jet stream. Is there a correlation between rising global temperature and the extremely northerly track of the jet stream?" You did mention that earlier.
HENSONYes, the location of the jet stream varies from day to day and from year to year there are patterns -- the Arctic oscillation is the index of that. And, in fact, there have been studies showing that the jet stream is a little bit further north than it used to be on average say 20, 30 years ago. So I would say, yes, there's a correlation. I don't know the specifics of this particular study, though.
REHMOK, let's go back to the phones to Key Largo, Fla., good morning Ari, you on the air.
ARIHi, Diane, thanks for taking my call.
ARII was very interested in your show because we've been seeing an interesting occurrence with reef fish down here spawning a number of months earlier than normal. And that seemed to fall in sync with what one of your other callers said about freshwater bass.
REHMYeah, it's very interesting. I wonder, Bob Henson, whether you have any thoughts on that.
HENSONIn terms of fish, I -- that's a little bit out of my area of expertise. One thing, though, that was pointed out, I believe, by David is that the water may not respond as quickly to the atmosphere as the atmosphere itself would. In other words, if there's a quick freeze it might not have as dramatic an impact on water and water borne creatures as it would on trees and the other things that are more directly exposed to the air.
REHMGo ahead, David.
INOUYEDiane, one thing I'd like to do is encourage your listeners to look at the website for the USA National Phenology Network, usanpn.org. And this is an agency now that's part of the U.S. Geological Survey, which is encouraging people to record these kinds of phenological observations. And typically those observations have been things like the opening of the lilac flowers in their yards or the first daffodils. But that USANPN website also allows people to record observations like the first robins that they see migrating. And we don't have very many data points -- much information about aquatic organisms.
INOUYESo getting information about spawning dates of fish would be great for people to record that information.
REHMAri, I hope you'll do that. Thanks for calling. And here's a posting on Facebook from Leslie. She says, "Bugs are crazy, deer ticks are crazy, West Nile will probably be crazy and my son's allergies are awful, but we got by with 250 gallons of heating oil for the whole winter." So clearly some upsides and then James says, "I wake to daily sinus pressure due to early tree pollen, but I'll take that any day compared to the fuel oil bills I could have had and the headaches those bills brought on. The only drawback to the warm weather is its lasting effects planet wide." Can you comment on that, Bob Henson?
HENSONYes, one of the striking things, especially about the last three weeks is we have had one of the most extreme weather events probably in U.S. history. And it's been a little under the radar, I think, because it's been so pleasant and it's been an absolutely glorious few days with temperatures, you know, in the 80's all the way up to northern Michigan. Two cities in the Canadian Maritimes were up in the upper 70's yesterday.
HENSONOne of them has never been up that warm even in April. So, you know, these are really off the charts. In fact, Bill McKibbon (sp?), the writer, posted a Tweet that said it's not really off the charts. It's off the wall that the charts are posted on. So I think, you know, it's -- anyway, that's all I wanted to say about that.
REHMIt's very strange is the point. Let's go to Petoskey, Mich., good morning, Scooter.
SCOOTERGood morning, Diane. Hey, is it a cycle all you experts or is it actual global warming or climate change or is this just like you said an event. I've been in the ski business 42 years here in northern Michigan and every single ski area today -- everywhere in the State of Michigan -- is closed, highly unusual. We all know about all the (word?) that are in and all the blooming and the cherries are starting to bloom here in northern Michigan. Is it a cycle? Is it a big change or is this just an event?
REHMWhat do you think, Bob Henson?
HENSONWell, I think it's a little of both. I mean we have long-term warming going on globally, regionally, nationally. That is unquestioned. On top of that we're always going to have ups and downs and we're going to, occasionally, have dramatic heat waves and cold waves. But the heat waves are getting a little more intense, the cold waves are getting a little weaker. I've never seen a cold wave on par with this one in terms of the departures of temperatures from average.
HENSONIf we had had this same atmospheric setup in July and the same departures from normal, we'd be seeing temperatures of 110, you know, 120 degrees. Now, thankfully that's very unlikely to happen just because of the way the atmosphere works, but my point is that the, you know, the departure from where things should be this March is something that's really unprecedented and cause for concern.
REHMSo from your point of view is this somehow a part of an ongoing cycle or is it global warming?
HENSONWell, I think we have to see it as something that is consistent with climate change and there's an analogy we've been using lately -- we did an animation showing this. Imagine a baseball player who takes steroids and now all of a sudden starts to hit more homeruns and hits one out of the park. Well, can you say that homerun was caused by the steroids? Really, you can't say for sure, but you can say that that homerun was more likely to happen.
HENSONAnd that's really where we are with this.
REHMAll right, to Palm Coast, Fla., hi, Karen.
KARENHello, Diane, thank you. I'm very interested in this subject.
KARENI've lived in northern climes and now I'm in southern climes. They constantly remind us that a warm winter allows insects to not be killed off in large numbers. But doesn't that also mean that the critters that prey on insects also do not have such a harsh winter and, therefore, they survive better, too. So I would assume, if I were correct, that that would be a net sum zero as far as the effect. The bats will come out earlier. I used to work with bats.
INOUYEThat's a good point. I think the problem is that we don't know enough about most insects to know how they're going to respond. We know, perhaps, about the biology of the pest insects. We don't know as much about the beneficial insects so it'll be interesting to see how that plays out this spring and summer.
KARENThank you, I appreciate that.
REHMAll right, Karen thanks for calling. Let's go to Fred in Cleveland, Ohio. Good morning.
FREDIt's an honor, Diane.
FREDI am a horticulturist here in the Cleveland area and I am seeing things at least three weeks out. I'm telling my customers who are calling like crazy, I'm three weeks ahead and four weeks behind. I've got paw paw trees that normally don't bloom here until the middle of May and the buds are so swollen I expect them to be open here in the next ten days or so.
INOUYEI have a paw paw tree in my back yard. The flowers are just starting to open and I'm going to have to get out there and pollinate them if I want to have some paw paws next spring because I'm not sure there are enough bees around yet to do that job.
REHMSo what are you going to do, Fred?
FREDI have changed my spring regimen for my customers. I've gone with -- instead of doing the dormant treatments which I would normally be doing in March, I have gone to my standard fungicide applications where needed and treating the insects where needed and just hope my customers understand that nobody has control over the weather conditions.
INOUYEWell, those are all aspects of phenology that you're responding to and the phenology's earlier this year and in order to adapt to that we've got to change our schedules.
REHMThanks for calling.
REHM...Fred, thanks for calling. Michael Morris, what can we, as adults, do to adapt to these changing cycles and to the fact that apparently there is more pollen of different kinds coming out earlier. And people who are vulnerable are certainly going to be affected, but perhaps even those like myself who've never been affected before will be. What should we do?
MORRISRecognizing that the exposure to pollen is going to be outside and more common in the morning where you'll see more pollen at the ground level, it would be better to change your jogging schedule to the afternoon or evening.
REHMIf I jog.
MORRISYeah, rather than the morning -- one's jogging schedule. When you come in from being outside, it's recommended that you may shower or wash your hair because pollen can end up in your hair.
MORRISYou don't want to bring that into your house. And to keep the windows closed during the springtime. Everybody's interested in keeping the windows open when it's so nice out, but during the time that there's pollen, that pollen will come into your air. And, finally, to use some type of filtration in your house during the springtime that would filter out the pollen.
REHMMichael Morris, he's an otolaryngologist and allergist in private practice operating here in the Washington area. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I want to ask you, David Inouye, about stink bugs which have proliferated in huge numbers in this area, but perhaps around the country, as well?
INOUYEWell, the species that's caused problems in this area is a relatively recently introduced species. I don't think it's as wide spread as to be all across the country but, certainly, regionally it's become a problem. It has spread to the states to the south and is also spreading some to the north. And that's an example, probably, of an insect that would do better this winter because it's been so mild. So it's possible we'll be seeing more of those this summer.
REHMWhere were they originally? How did they begin to infest this area so widely?
INOUYEI believe it's an Asian species, although I could be wrong about that, but this is one example of many species of invasive insects that have been brought in unintentionally because of the huge amount of international trade. Another local species that is spreading is the Asian tiger mosquito, which has made it real nuisance. It's no longer fun to sit out and eat on your patio anymore because of those mosquitoes. And they're spreading.
REHMAnd someone emails us, Amanda, from Tampa, Fla. says "Will tropical diseases like malaria be seen further north because of these temperature changes?"
INOUYECertainly spreading of diseases is likely to be a consequence of climate change. You know, we used to have malaria here in this area, right here in D.C. it used to be a big problem until a lot of the area was drained back, I guess, in the 1800s and so, yeah, there is the potential for some of these tropical diseases to move further north.
REHMAnd, Bob Henson, do you see this kind of pattern continuing for the foreseeable future?
HENSONWell, I think we're going to have to watch for periods like this. You know, last summer, Texas had the hottest summer in its history by far. Now, they've had some rains, things have settled down and the Midwest is popped up and become extremely warm. So these things tend to come and go different parts of the country, but they are becoming more intense.
HENSONAt the same time, we have to be ready for the climate that we're used to. So I think this is forcing us to expand our range of options and forcing us to be more flexible and be prepared for a wider range of things than we may have been in the past expect, perhaps, not as much extreme cold.
REHMAnd on the energy front one emailer says, "Unlike the north, the shortened winter has hurt my energy bill. My air conditioning was turned on a month and a half early." And Tim from Baltimore, Md. reminds us to be vigilant for deer ticks. The warm winter may cause a rise in the number of deer ticks. If you're guests can tell listeners about the appropriate precautions concerning deer ticks, it would be a helpful public service.
INOUYEWell, tick repellents are one possibility. Another is to check yourself carefully when you come back in. Tuck your pants into your socks to keep ticks from crawling up under your pant legs. And if you have pets, check them carefully for ticks or you may even want to use some of the medications that are available to help kill ticks.
REHMNow can those medications in any way harm the pet?
INOUYEI'm afraid I don't -- that's out of my area of expertise.
REHMOkay. And by the way, we have your website put up on our own. Thank you all so much, Bob Henson, Michael Morris and David Inouye for this morning's discussion. Thanks for being here. And thanks for listening all, I'm Diane Rehm.
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