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February 23, 2012

Winter confuses critters and humans

Which species in South Carolina has the most trouble adapting to this year without severe winter cold?

Which species in South Carolina has the most trouble adapting to this year without severe winter cold?

Probably humans.

We’re sniffling and sneezing with allergies weeks earlier than normal. In January, we complained that bugs already were out. In early February, we were buying fertilizer for garden plants that weren’t ready for it yet.

Local allergists’ offices filled unseasonably early, as pollen burst from some trees during a particularly warm spell in January. Spring allergy sufferers routinely start on their medications in early to middle February, building up protection by the start of March.

The January pollen burst “caught a lot of people off guard,” said Dr. Michael Bykowsky of Carolina Allergy and Asthma Consultants. By the time they could start their medications, it was too late to protect their respiratory systems.

Gloriously warm winter days aren’t unusual for Columbia. The city has averaged 13.7 days of 70 degrees or more in the past 124 years from Dec. 1 through the end of February. So far this year, we’ve had 15, according to the Southeast Regional Climate Center.

What has set apart this winter is the lack of severe cold. Columbia averages 23.4 days in the 20s or colder each winter. This year, we’ve had only 11, and no more are in the forecast this month. The last time a Columbia winter had 11 or fewer days in the 20s was 1974.

While people with allergies suffer, most wildlife and plants, in the long run, will be just fine. After all, this is only the 17th warmest Dec. 1-Feb. 22 in the past 125 years in Columbia.

“This has happened before,” said Charles Ruth, a wildlife biologist with the S.C. Department Natural Resources. “How much wildlife notices these sorts of things is uncertain.”

With most mammals and birds, their habits are determined by the length of the day, not the temperature. With widespread artificial lights for the past 100 or so years, “humans have lost that cycle, but wild animals haven’t,” Ruth said.

Temperature extremes are more likely to impact individual creatures or small populations than entire species. Naturalist Rudy Mancke of USC’s School of the Environment noted that some monarch butterflies overwintered in coastal South Carolina rather than make their normal migration to Mexico. And in the Midlands, the angel wing butterflies, usually the first time come out in late winter, were out when Mancke took his students on nature walks in January. That’s as early as he can remember.

And even though it seems counterintuitive for an Arctic bird to show up during a particularly warm winter in South Carolina, there was a rare sighting of a snowy owl in Kershaw County early this year.

“When climate changes occur, it shakes out in some pretty odd ways,” Mancke said.

Aquatic creatures are slightly more impacted by cold and warmth. Brown shrimp larvae, for instance, overwinter offshore, said David Whitaker of DNR’s Marine Resources Division. They need a normal winter cold to give them time to mature before they migrate to warmer waters close to shore. If they come in too early, a late freeze will result in a major kill.

Flounder and spotted sea trout are in the same boat, with the timing of the immigration the key. But in general, those species probably will do better this year than last year, when a dreadfully cold December and early January decimated their numbers and nearly wiped out many smaller bait fish species in South Carolina coastal waters, Whitaker said.

White shrimp have a different time schedule, and sometimes what’s bad for brown shrimp might be good for white shrimp. The season for catching white shrimp off South Carolina can end as early as December and usually ends by Jan. 10. This year, it was open until Jan. 17 because of the mild temperatures.

In the Midlands, the warm winter has sent people who love to dig in the dirt to garden stores a few weeks early. Robin Klein, general manager at Woodley’s Garden Center in Northeast Richland, has been warning people who buy flowering plants on 70-degree days in January and February that they likely will have to cover the plants (fabric only, no plastic) when the inevitable late frost hits. And if customers insist on buying fertilizer, she cautions them not to use it too early when plants aren’t ready to grow.

One of the best thing about a mild winter is that people get out of their homes more. Visitation and campsite revenue are up over last year in the state parks, said parks director Phil Gaines.

Visitors to the parks are finding early blooming wildflowers, unseasonably active wildlife (including gators on the coast) and bugs. The rise in insects in months when they usually aren’t a problem was the most common mild winter complaint in the parks, Gaines said.

Bugs are a concern. Clemson entomologist Eric Benson noted that ants usually stop foraging in the winter, but ant hills monitored in the Greenwood area have remained active through January and February. That doesn’t, however, mean ant populations, or bugs in general, will be particularly plentiful this spring and summer.

A late freeze could put a dent in insect populations, which also generally are impacted more by moisture than temperature. If the spring and summer are particularly dry, as forecast, insect numbers during the summer could be lower than normal, Benson said.

In the long term, the fallout from drought is much more of a concern for South Carolinians than the consequences of a warm winter.

“The big question is what will follow this mild winter... a wet spring? A hot summer?” said parks director Gaines. “Regardless we’ll enjoy the mild temperatures and the early signs of spring.”

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