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Early spring blooms point to effects of global warming

Hillary Kleeb, restoration coordinator for Friends of the Hylebos, examines a blooming Indian plum, one of the first native species to bloom in the Hylebos wetlands. - Margo Horner/The Mirror
Hillary Kleeb, restoration coordinator for Friends of the Hylebos, examines a blooming Indian plum, one of the first native species to bloom in the Hylebos wetlands.
— image credit: Margo Horner/The Mirror

By JACINDA HOWARD, The Mirror

The days are getting warmer and longer, bringing signs of spring time as well as dangerous conditions for some plant and animal life.

Early spring plant growth can invigorate one’s spirits, but some believe it can also have negative affects on the environment. The early sprouts are seen as a sign of global warming.

Indications of spring have started popping up in Federal Way. Vibrant green leaves and small budding flowers are already in sight at the West Hylebos Wetlands.

“I’ve been pretty convinced it’s been spring for about four weeks now,” said Hillary Kleeb, Friends of the Hylebos restoration coordinator.

Indian plum — shrubbery with bells of white flowers and small berries — was one of the first plant life in the area to emerge as the weather warmed. Kleeb first noticed it scattered around the wetlands in February.

Small, deeply-colored pink flowers are visible on the salmonberry bushes. Various forms of willows are growing on trees and out of logs. Elderberry shrubs are sprouting new branches, and the skunk cabbage’s smooth yellow-green leaves and pungent smell are noticeable.

“In the Hylebos, the skunk cabbage is a true sign of spring,” said Chris Carrel, Friends of the Hylebos executive director.

For many Federal Way folks, the early growth may go unnoticed.

“It’s not an obvious thing that flashes in front of your face; it’s more like a growing recognition,” Carrel said.

The bursting foliage provides a refreshing break from dreary winter weather and barren landscapes, but it also provides a glimpse into the Earth’s climate change.

“From a human standpoint, it’s great to have an early spring,” said Paul Alaback, forest ecology professor at the University of Montana-Missoula. “From a plant standpoint, there are a number of issues.”

Plants survive through photosynthesis, a process in which light energy is converted to chemical energy. As the air becomes warmer and sunlight more abundant, it triggers foliage, Kleeb said.

“Spring is sort of being forced earlier and earlier, and I think we’re

seeing that,” Carrel said.

Growth trends have shown that plant life is emerging one to three days earlier per decade, Alaback said. Though vegetation may only be sprouting a week ahead of schedule, the results can be dangerous.

“A week might not seem like a lot, but the growing season is really important to plants,” Alaback said.

In this interdependent world, plant and wild life rely on each other for survival, he said. When animals’ food sources emerge early, they may miss the feeding opportunity.

Similarly, some plant life depends on animals for pollination. Additionally, the species have become accustomed to evolving in a specific climate — even slight increases in temperature can disrupt life cycles, Alaback said. If vegetation grows too early, it faces the threat of a sudden frost; if it sprouts too late, it may not grow correctly, he said.

Global warming creates a breakdown in the relationship between plants and animals, Alaback said.

“The worry we have is that if we have a very rapid warming, some plants and animals are going to adapt to that change faster than others,” he said.

Contact Jacinda Howard: jhoward@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

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FYI:

The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) and a team of partners began asking citizens across the county to participate in Project BudBurst. The project provides an online database and allows one to monitor the growing patterns and life cycles of vegetation across the nation.

This will assist researchers in tracking the effects of global warming, according to a Feb. 13 ScienceDaily article title “Project Budburst: Looking To Spring Flowers For Climate Change Clues.”

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