The geese had been gathering for several days: huge flocks assembling, sheltering together in the fields, gossiping, gleaning, making preparations for their long journey back to the Canadian tundra. Suddenly, sensing the celestial clockwork of the season, they lifted off early in the evening of the full Snow Moon (February 27 this year), using its bright light as a beacon to guide them on their northbound way.
Meanwhile, to the south, the flyways are full of ospreys making their way back to their summer nests on our rivers and Bay. My bet is that within the next few days, we’ll have had the first annual sighting of these soaring beauties, keening on high as they fish for dinner.
And then there are the tiny luminescent hummingbirds. They, too, are making their way north, having left their winter feeding grounds in Central America to wend their way through Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas before arriving in mid-April at the feeders in our gardens and backyards.
Oh; and let’s not forget one more airborne journey: monarch butterflies—the only migrating species of butterfly—are flitting north, more than half a million of them returning to the places where they were born, repopulating as they go. (The lifespan of a monarch butterfly is only a few weeks so it takes several generations to complete the complete migratory cycle.) This year, the East Coast population of monarchs began their northward migration from Mexico on February 24 and by summer, God willing, their lovely stained-glass wings will again be folding and unfolding here.
Spring is literally in the air. Depending on your personal perspectives and preferences, all this vernal avian movement is either a divine mystery or just another explicable, rational fact. Take your pick. Either way, it’s a fascinating display of the wonders of the natural world—the one that surrounds us, the one we so desperately need to care for.
And therein lies the problem. You see, there’s something else in the air, something colorless, tasteless, and odorless; something invisible, silent, and, sad to say, dangerous. It’s carbon dioxide (CO2), a naturally formed trace gas consisting of a single carbon atom covalently bonded to two oxygen atoms. The current concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is about .04%, or 412 parts per million. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s a higher level of atmospheric carbon dioxide than at any other time in the past 300 million years of our planet’s history, and it’s accelerating at an alarming rate.
Unless you are a true non-believer, paleoclimatology is not for the faint of heart; it’s a sobering science that seeks to explain life on Earth as a function of climate. I don’t pretend to understand all its scientific nuance, but this much I do understand: as the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere increases, so does Earth’s temperature. And because we live on such a capricious planet, even a small increase in temperature can have profound environmental consequences. Ice will melt, seas will rise, and weather phenomena will become evermore virulent.
In the pre-industrial age, the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere was about half of what it is today. While there are many natural sources of carbon dioxide—volcanoes, geysers, even groundwater—there are many more human-derived sources, primarily fossil fuel emissions and deforestation, the two leading causes of global warming and ocean acidification. The evidence of cataclysmic change is already before our eyes and it’s not a pretty sight. Earth’s warning lights are flashing bright red.
All this may seem a long way from where I began, but it’s not. The great avian migrations that have signaled the coming of spring for millennia may seem like a timeless component of the rhythm of life on earth, but the patterns and numbers of these migrations are changing rapidly. Loss of habitat, competition for resources, pesticide use, and rising temperatures are having a major impact on these wondrous events, perhaps forever changing our previously simplistic notion that, once again, spring is in the air.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine.
Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.