Phenology – now there’s a new word for my mental dictionary and, courtesy of a talk at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, I have been indulging in it a lot recently. Though I am not sure if I have quite got it right.
Phenology – the study of cyclic and seasonal phenomena among plants and animals, especially as they are affected by changes in climate – has become increasingly important in the era of global warming. However, when it comes to the cyclic and seasonal phenomena of the human animal, I wonder if another variable is coming into play – economics. Take the strange, ritualistic behaviour of human beings towards the end of the year. It appears to be stimulated by shops advertising a thing called “Christmas”. This used to happen in December but, over past decades, it has been observed coming earlier and earlier – November, October, and even in rare cases September. Having ruled out the possibility that this “season creep” might be one more effect of global warming, I am left wondering whether it could possibly be caused by a phenomenon known in the trade as “global capitalism”.
My studies have also revealed that this season creep is a far from isolated phenomenon. It has been observed in relation to a thing called the “January sales” which are now appearing before “Christmas”. While the most extreme example concerns a time called “Easter”, where egg-like objects made from chocolate have been appearing four months early – emerging on to shelves in shops during December. Is it possible that global warming is involved after all? – I have heard it rumoured that a strange and highly elusive creature, the “Easter Bunny”, is laying earlier to avoid warmer spring temperatures melting the eggs before they are ready to hatch in April. Others assure me that this is just an urban myth (spread by the neo-liberal elite) to hide the real cause – the early onset of a season known as “the crisis of global capitalism”.
Moving from this, perhaps dubious, “social-phenology”, to its use in the natural world, we find ourselves on firmer ground.
Through the Scottish Wildlife Trust, I learn that various studies are going on into the extent and effects of the early onset of Spring in a whole variety of species. Most of us are aware that flowers are appearing earlier and earlier, (or even through the Edinburgh “winter”). But it is not just flowers – season creep is affecting insects, birds and doubtless many other creatures. Without the work of (proper) phenologists, we might be tempted to think that early flowers are a pleasant, if unusual, thing. However serious problems will arise for ecosystems if the insects which feed on and pollinate those flowers adapt more slowly to changes in temperature and only emerge after the flowers have gone over. Or if the birds which depend on the insects to feed their young don’t adapt quickly enough, then when their chicks appear they may lack sufficient food. A whole section of the food chain might go awol at the critical time. We are beginning to understand that species react to these changes at different rates, but only detailed research into how each species’ own timings relates to its neighbours can tell us the likely affect of global warming. However, our detailed knowledge of the web of life looks set to grow enormously – thanks to phenology.
To quote from the Book of Ecclesiastes again: “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.” Well, ’tis is the season of phenology and not before time.