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Keep Track of Climate Change in Your Backyard
March 28, 2024

Keep Track of Climate Change in Your Backyard

Reading Time: 3 minutes

A Simple Way to Stay Grounded as Climate Change Shapes Our World, Spring is early. How early?, Spring: How to track seasonal shifts due to climate change over the years

This is One Thing, a column with tips on how to live.

In July 2018, I reviewed a book called Ground Truth: A Guide to Tracking Climate Change at Home, by Mark Hineline. Hineline argued that writing down seasonal milestones can reduce the oppressive feeling of unease you get when you see the dogwood trees putting out flowers before Easter. We, as humans, are susceptible to an idea from ecology called shifting baseline syndrome, in which we too easily mentally adapt to degradations in our environment because we don’t remember how things used to be. We question ourselves (Wait … that’s not right); we rationalize (Was Easter earlier last year, maybe?). Taking notes through the years, Hineline argued, could help. Henry David Thoreau did something similar: He kept a written record of the blooming of local wildflowers, though he probably could not have anticipated that these notes would aid climate scientists over 150 years later.

I thought about Hineline’s directive recently. Here in southeastern Ohio, spring is early this year, like it is in many places. But I didn’t get just how early until I was downloading old copies of my TinyLetter after that company announced it was shuttering its services. I happened to see that on March 13, 2016, I had noted in my weekly missive that the daffodils were out, trees were in bud, and there were tree frogs singing. ‘It’s too early for this, by a full two or three weeks,’ 2016 me wrote.

Reading this, 2024 me realized I’d lost the plot. When our daffies came out on March 3 this year, I’d thought, ‘Well, at least it’s not February.’ My baselines! They’re shifting!!!

I am not so much a paper record keeper anymore, so while it’s not very Thoreauvian, I decided to take my tracking efforts digital. I made a Google spreadsheet, the kind I have for everything else: planning for our child’s summer camps, notes about Christmas admin, addresses of friends and family. And I made a column for all the spring milestones I could think of. Spring peepers come earliest for us, or so I think. Then forsythia, daffodils, magnolias, robins, and cherry trees, on down the line.

The good thing about doing this in Google format is that I can add many more columns, as I remember that they exist, and rows, as I happen upon data about past years in photos and emails. (I just remembered: I posted to Instagram the week of March 11, 2020, when I was on social media a lot for some huge, world-changing reason I won’t mention here, to show how the forsythia was in full bloom. Into the doc, you go!) In the fall, I will add a sheet to note when the first frost comes, and when the leaves come off different trees in our neighborhood.

I know that keeping track of early spring won’t make early spring stop happening. But there’s something about having the data that just makes me feel less at sea. And because I’m highly susceptible to gamification, I am now going to go look up the names of more wildflowers so I can make more columns. The world is changing; maybe sometime in the future, someone trying to pin down exactly how can use my notes. For now, doing this makes me, personally, feel 5 to 7 percent better. I’ll take it.


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