On Daufuskie Island, it is normal to see a layer of sandy dirt covering homes, buildings, and golf carts. However, anyone who has visited the island over the last couple of weeks has probably noticed a new shade of dust that has taken over the island — the dust of yellow pollen.
The Spring bloom came early this year to Daufuskie, about 20 days earlier than usual according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The month of February saw an average temperature of 68 degrees Farenheit; 8 degrees warmer than February’s usual average. There were seventeen days in February over 70 degrees on Daufuskie Island this year.
The Azalea, one of the most popular flowerings shrubs in the southeast, usually blooms late March into April. The Azaleas on Daufuskie Island this year, however, started blooming in late February!
“Phenology” is the study of earth’s natural cycles, which includes seasons. Spring is categorized by not only warmer temperatures but the return of migratory birds / insects and flowering of plants. Daufuskie Island has certainly seen warmer temperatures and flowering plants, and many migratory birds have begun to resurface.
While we enjoy the early warm temperatures and splashes of colors popping up, an early spring can be dangerous. In previous years, the early onset of warm temperatures in February and March promoted early growth and flowering of spring species. Temperatures then dropped in April, resulting in extensive loss in diversity in the southeast. The average last frost date on Daufuskie Island is April 1st-10th, so our frost-sensitive flowers could be in danger. If these species die, they do not regrow for that year, which leaves crucial pollinators with little food.
False or early spring upsets the complex relationships within our ecosystem. Some plants (such as many of the flowering plants on Daufuskie) respond to changes in temperature as their queue to flower. Other species such as Beech and Oak trees use daylight as their signal that Spring has arrived. Thus, these species will become out of sync if warm temperatures precede extended daylight time. In addition, if a plant blooms a month early, hibernating animals which eat those plants may lose an important post-hibernation food once they become active.
Early spring is one of the biggest red flags of global climate change throughout the United States. Spring plant growth has been shifting earlier documented over the past couple of decades amid rising global temperatures. “Earlier spring onset may cause phenological mismatches between the availability of plant resources and dependent animals, and potentially lead to more false springs, when subsequent freezing temperatures damage new plant growth,” says a recent study in Environmental Research Letters.
For now, we bask in the March sunlight, enjoy the blooming flowers, and hope that no damage is done to our unique and flourishing ecosystem here on Daufuskie Island.
-Tour Daufuskie Naturalist