Blooming Bluebells: Warming Signs in Monks Wood

Tim Sparks i i

Tim Sparks is an environmental scientist at the Center for Ecology and Hydrology in Cambridgeshire, England. Madhulika Sikka, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Madhulika Sikka, NPR
Tim Sparks

Tim Sparks is an environmental scientist at the Center for Ecology and Hydrology in Cambridgeshire, England.

Madhulika Sikka, NPR
Bluebells i i

Bluebells are in early bloom in the old forest at Monks Wood, Cambridgeshire. Madhulika Sikka, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Madhulika Sikka, NPR
Bluebells

Bluebells are in early bloom in the old forest at Monks Wood, Cambridgeshire.

Madhulika Sikka, NPR

Tim Sparks has been tracking how climate change is affecting plants and animals all over the world. But some of the most dramatic changes can be seen near his office in the English countryside.

In a place called Monks Wood, about 60 miles north of London, Sparks shows a visiting reporter a bluebells wood in full flower.

"These species have taken hundreds of years to get established here," he says.

But Sparks, an environmental scientist at the Center for Ecology and Hydrology in Cambridgeshire, says the bloom is occurring about three weeks earlier than normal this year. This April was the warmest for the area in nearly 350 years, he says.

"We've got records of temperature in Central England going back to 1659," Sparks says. "This April was the warmest in that complete series.... But it's not just April. We had a record-breaking July last year. We had a record-breaking October as well. And the vegetation and the animals are responding to that."

In addition to official records, Sparks also studies diaries and lists kept obsessively by tens of thousands of amateur naturalists. These note-takers charted everything from their first glimpse of a pond frog to the first bloom of the winter crocus.

"There were landowners, there were vicars," Sparks says. "In many cases there were spinsters and some of these people recorded for their whole lifetime."

Sparks figures that he has two million pieces of data. As he matches these amateur observations with the official temperature records, a picture emerges of some species faltering in a warming world. He stoops and points to an orange-tipped butterfly.

"It only lays its eggs on two plant species," Sparks says. "There used to be a very clear gap between the arrival of the butterfly and the flowering of the plant — about 10 days. And that was just what was needed to allow the butterfly to mate and to lay eggs. That gap has disappeared now. And if it doesn't synchronize it's egg-laying with when those plants are flowering, those caterpillars will not survive."

And if the caterpillars don't survive, some birds might not survive ... and so on.

Sparks says the changes in the English countryside should send a warning message to other places around the world.

"We've only had a relatively small amount of warming so far," he says. "This isn't natural change any longer. This is change that's being caused by us. And this really is just an early warning. Climate change is real. It's happening. Yes, the flowers, the plants, the animals are changing. But there's going to be huge human consequences further down the road."

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