Friday, February 13, 2009

Global Warming and the Loss of Winter: The Testimony of Dogs

I blogged last month about the signs I see with my own eyes of climate change—signs I see in my garden, where, in recent years, shrubs like japonica (flowering quince), which used to flower only as winter gave way to spring, now begin putting out blossoms in mid-winter ( In the past week, on my walks, I see spring flowers appearing all over, starring the frost-browned grass of the field to which Steve and I take our dogs to walk overlooking the downtown: Quaker ladies, spring beauty, cress, henbit. Patches of jonquils (daffodils) are also in bloom now, and the japonica has moved from partial to full blossom. The silver maple in the front yard has had heavy buds from mid-January, something about which a neighbor recently remarked in surprise.

This weekend, as I sat outside reading on an exceptionally balmy day, it was fascinating to observe my dogs’ reaction to the climate changes I can see around me in the garden. This was just as the warm, moist air from the Gulf began to pour into our area last week, before the series of tornadoes that followed on its heels, when that warm air met cold blasts from the Canadian plains.

My dogs told me what was coming by their reactions. Normally, each of the three specializes in a particular skill he or she exercises on behalf of the little pack. Crispen is all eyes, and insists on leading the way if something is unknown and the others might need protection. Valentine smells, lavishly, demonstratively, letting the others know where someone or somebody has been by the traces of scent he can detect on an object or person’s clothes. Flora herds, keeps the other two in line, barks to alert them to the presence of other animals nearby.

But on the day I sat with them in the garden, all three were noses. They sat at my feet, totally attentive to the wind, eyes closed, ears flat, sniffing hungrily. They were turned in its direction—the southeast, where our rain normally comes from. The direction of the Gulf and the fertile fields of the Delta over which the Gulf pours air into central Arkansas.

With my untutored human nose, I could only barely detect all that the dogs were able to smell in the wind last weekend. But what I could sniff ever so slightly made me realize what it was that fascinated them as they tasted the air: a tiny whang of brine, the mysterious fragrances of places far away from our landlocked and winter-bound highlands.

What made the inrush of warm air (“It’s not supposed to be in the 70s in February,” a weatherman told us sagely as this was taking place) noseworthy was not that it was happening. We have that inrush, after all, in March and April, as all nature wakes from its winter sleep here. What made it remarkable was that it was happening in winter, when one should not smell the sea here. The juxtaposition of cold, sterile winter air with warm, most, odiferous Gulf air right in the heart of winter: that’s what the dogs detected this weekend, and reacted to by becoming all nose.

And, predictably, in the days after this happened, we had a spate of the dangerously unsettled weather we are now coming to expect in winter: spring and fall weather in the middle of winter. Tornadoes, heavy thunderstorms, as the cold fronts that continue up to the end of winter meet warm-air masses that should not be in this region until spring, or that may linger into fall but ought not to trouble us until winter is past.

We have always been a region of tornadoes, because of our situation at the southern terminus of the plains over which the cold masses of air pour down, and at the northernmost reach of weather fronts from the Gulf. But tornadoes have visited us in the past almost always in spring and fall—not in winter.

Not any more. Now we’re learning to expect dangerous storm systems right in the heart of winter. Because winter itself is vanishing from this part of the country, as daytime highs reach over 70 in January and February, waking up what should not be awakened in the sleep of winter.