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Is Spring Getting Longer in New Hampshire?

Alix Contosta
University of New Hampshire
Alix Contosta
Alix Contosta
Credit University of New Hampshire
University of New Hampshire
Alix Contosta

Monday is the vernal equinox: that’s the beginning of spring, according to astronomers. For ecologists, spring isn’t just a matter of the earth’s rotation around the sun.  

It has to do with events like melting snow, and the tree canopy.  According to new research from the University of New Hampshire, that ecological spring, also known as the "vernal window," may be getting longer.

Research professor Alix Contosta spends a lot of timing thinking about what she calls a “philosophical” question. That is, “what is spring?”

She said historically, spring has been a brief burst of a season that starts with warming air temperatures and ends when trees have all their leaves. However, her research suggests that season may be growing longer.

“What we found,” said Contosta, “is if you have a warmer winter with less snow, spring is longer, and the time between any two transitions is longer.”

She explained that UNH has installed sensors across the state, which take incremental measurements of things like stream flow and soil temperature, then automatically dumps that data into a database.

Contosta took three years of that data and found that the warmer the winter, the longer the lag time was between events.

“So the time from when the snow starts to melt to when leaves emerge on trees, that’s a longer period.”

In addition to asking existential questions, like “what is spring,” Contosta said, she also thinks about what a longer, more drawn out spring could mean.

“If soils are really warm for a long time before trees are active, then all those nutrients that are turning over in the soil might be lost before plants can take them up,” said Contosta. “That’s what I think about when I have my scientist hat on.”

When she takes her scientist hat off – she’s still thinking about the longer-spring. Will it be too muddy to go hiking in spring? Will it mean more or less maple syrup?

Copyright 2021 New Hampshire Public Radio. To see more, visit New Hampshire Public Radio.

Emily Corwin reported investigative stories for VPR until August 2020. In 2019, Emily was part of a two-newsroom team which revealed that patterns of inadequate care at Vermont's eldercare facilities had led to indignities, injuries, and deaths. The consequent series, "Worse for Care," won a national Edward R. Murrow award for investigative reporting, and placed second for a 2019 IRE Award. Her work editing VPR's podcast JOLTED, about an averted school shooting, and reporting NHPR's podcast Supervision, about one man's transition home from prison, made her a finalist for a Livingston Award in 2019 and 2020. Emily was also a regular reporter and producer on Brave Little State, helping the podcast earn a National Edward R. Murrow Award for its work in 2020. When she's not working, she enjoys cross country skiing and biking.
Emily Corwin
Emily Corwin covers New Hampshire news, and reports on the state's criminal justice system. She's also one of eight dedicated reporters with the New England News Collaborative, a consortium of public media newsrooms across New England.
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