New York’s winter keeps melting away, insects are buzzing in Massachusetts and across parts of Texas plants are leafing out earlier this year than they have in the past four decades.

Pushed along by climate change and forces across the Pacific Ocean, spring has arrived weeks early in the South and is now reaching up the East Coast into the Mid-Atlantic. In New York, temperatures are rising and bringing on warmth usually not seen until mid-March. Washington, D.C.’s famous cherry blossom trees are on pace to bloom early.

The mainly absent winter may cheer people who hate the cold and those looking for lower heating bills. But it plays havoc with nature and agriculture. Warmer temperatures bring plants out of dormancy sooner, which can hurt migrating animals, and if a late cold blast arrives, the freeze can damage trees and their fruit.

“Consistently warmer temperatures are causing wild fluctuations in the climate, which is disrupting the wildlife,” said Deborah Landau, director of ecological management for the Nature Conservancy.

It can also help ticks and mosquitoes thrive to spread Lyme disease, anaplasmosis and deadly eastern equine encephalitis, as well as adding to the allergy burden for humans when pollen stays in the air longer, said Theresa Crimmins, director of the USA National Phenology Network, which tracks the onset of spring.

“It definitely is an anomalously early and warm spring in the Northeast this year; I had been hesitant to not overstate things, but it really does look pretty notable,” Crimmins, also a research professor at the University of Arizona, said by email.

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Of all the seasons, winter has been warming the fastest and losing most of its bite due to the global heating caused by the burning of fossil fuels. This trend has shown up in data and was highlighted again last year when the U.S. updated its normal temperature charts. Everywhere in the country, with the exception of parts of the upper Great Plains, normal temperatures – based on 30-year averages – rose.

Across the contiguous 48 states, last month was the sixth warmest January on record. The six New England states, as well as New Jersey, were warmer than ever recorded, according to the U.S. National Centers for Environmental Information. New York, Pennsylvania and Indiana had their second warmest Januarys in data going back to 1895.

Since December, energy demand has been among the lowest of winters in more than 70 years. This winter is the fifth warmest on record going back to 1950, by population-weighted heating degree days – a measure of how weather affects energy demand – through Feb. 12, said Matt Rogers, president of the Commodity Weather Group. Only 2001-02, 2011-12, 2015-16 and 2019-20 can beat it.

The unusually warm weather has also roiled energy markets. Without frigid temperatures, demand for fuels to heat homes and businesses has plummeted. U.S. natural gas futures have slumped more than 45% this year, pushing inventories up usual levels for this time of the year.

There is still a chance that a cold snap could put the brakes on spring and damage plants that have already emerged in the South, said Crimmins. However, the forecast through the end of the month calls for a high chance that mild temperatures will hold sway across the South and Mid-Atlantic, according to the U.S. Climate Prediction Center.

In addition to the warming climate, phenomena across the Pacific have helped keep North America relatively warm. A pocket of warm water in the northern Pacific has bent the jet stream into an N-shaped pattern, helping pump milder air to the Eastern U.S., said Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center.

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Storms passing through the Eastern U.S. have been further inland, and that has put larger cities like New York City and Washington, D.C., on the milder side. New York has had one of its least snowy years on record.

In 2017 and 2020, New York City had notably early springs, but this year’s heat is outpacing them, Crimmins said: “Conditions have most definitely been much warmer than average in New York since the start of the year, and as a result, plants and animals are definitely starting to wake up.”

Mild winters and early springs throw nature’s finely tuned engine out of balance. Usually, birds summoned by the height of the sun arrive in North America to feast on insects that are roused by spring warmth and that pollinate plants just beginning to flower, Crimmins said. That is the way it is supposed to work – but if the plants come early, the insects may not be ready and the birds might miss their meals and have to migrate elsewhere.

This disruption of nature’s design also affects agriculture. “Even with industrial farming we still depend on the weather,” Landau said. “You have to have some sort of predictability.”

Warm winters and early springs are adding to the evidence the public can see that climate change is a problem, she added. “I think people are increasingly understanding you really can point a finger at fossil fuels. We’re getting there, but it might not be quite fast enough,” she said.

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