Climate change


Nature Knows

You don’t need a thermometer to see the effects of climate change. The evidence is all around: in the birds, the bees, the flowers and the trees. Take a look up close. Strange metamorphoses are blooming in the wind.

By Sunny Bleckinger

World Wide Web was so turn of the century. Welcome now to the Warm Winter Wonderland. Temperatures here and around the globe are soaring past old records, and bringing the world closer together: it’s now hip to talk about the weather.

Animals and plants are acting like characters in a fable. Giant lobsters are running amok in the canals. Amorous buzzards are breeding way too early. A mother duck laid eggs on a cold New Year’s Day. The list goes on. And it’s all real. The only thing missing are four apocalyptic horses.(Though a farmer near Nijmegen claims to have spotted one the other day. ‘He had real shifty eyes,’ he reported. But this remains the sole sighting.)

There’s no reason to ask what’s going on. We all know the climate’s been changing steadily. And we all know who’s at fault. But now, the effects are clearer than ever, and they’re right in our own backyard. Pre-season buds are already blooming. Crocuses are cracking the soil. Even a couple of bright yellow daffodils were spotted last week. As you stroll through the park, or stretch out on the terrace, be sure to perk up, shield the bright winter sun from your eyes, and take notice of the strange, unseasonable growths all around.

Man might say it’s January, but according to the migrating birds still loitering in our trees, there’s plenty of time until winter comes. Maybe someone could explain to nature, by way of a calendar of sorts, the length of seasons. That might bring things back to normal. Because one thing’s for sure: humans won’t be changing their role any time soon.

Natural timing

Nature has no fixed clock or calendar like we do. It relies on ever-changing signs of the seasons for time. Arjen Breur, Beleidsadviseur Stadsnatuur for the Milieucentrum Amsterdam, explains: ‘Some plants reset their clocks by the shortest day. When the days start getting longer, the plants notice this. They say: “OK, now we start flowering.” Others say: “Hey, the days are getting longer, but it’s not quite warm yet. So we wait.” The day-light hours are how they tell the date—there’s not much else to go on.’

It gets more complicated, however, when other plants and animals rely more on temperature than daylight. When one of these elements changes, tremendous collisions can be caused in the earth’s natural balance. It’s like resetting half the traffic lights in town.

According to Breur: ‘On a global scale, the chain reactions can be enormous. And in a normal ecosystem, it would screw up the balance. But here in Amsterdam, we don’t really have a normal system. And most of the animals eat French fries.’

Breur explains that Amsterdam’s ecosystem is generally characteristic of cities worldwide. ‘Most cities are one or two degrees warmer than their surroundings—which is a lot. It’s the difference between freezing and not freezing. And it’s been that way for hundreds of years. Global warming may be new to the world, but urban warming is relatively old.’

This could explain why so many people—particularly those in power—continue to take little action against the climate changes. We live in cities. The changes in nature we see around us do not appear as detrimental as those happening elsewhere.

‘As it gets warmer,’ says Breur, ‘the green parakeets here keep growing in number. They just counted two thousand of them of them in Oosterpark. Who knows, maybe the pigeons will get kicked out by the parakeets, and we’ll all start hating parakeets. A lot might change, but there will always be nature in the city.’

True. But if pigeons could get pushed out of the cities, why couldn’t the same happen to humans? We’re not as separate from the forces of nature as we like to think. ‘I love ice skating,’ says Breur. ‘There used to be a time when we had the elfstedentocht every year—that big race on natural ice with thousands of people. You start out in the morning when it’s dark, and finish at night when it’s dark. But it’s been about ten years since we’ve had one. The winters just aren’t cold enough.’

Despite our paper calendars and mechanical clocks, we too must alter our activities according to the weather and daylight hours. Unfortunately, the things we’re not changing are our attitude and action towards nature. For that kind of change, humans tend to require more language-based forms of motivation, like slogans and mantras, which have proven quite successful in provoking large mass movements. But what kind of slogan could truly push mankind, along with all of our complicated passions, into true synchronicity with the rest of nature?

Global warming = fewer Great Tits

A popular and common family of birds around the northern hemisphere and in Africa is the tit family. They comprise many varieties, including Blue Tits, Yellow-browed Tits, Azure Tits and Sultan Tits. The tits of the Netherlands include the Blue variety and the largest, most easily recognisable of the family: the Great Tits. (Kids: if you type ‘Great Tit’ into Google, you’ll get page after page of sites dedicated solely to birds. Do not, however, try this with ‘big tit’. That brings another result.)

‘Great Tits hatch their eggs at a very specific time of year,’ says Breur. ‘Normally, this occurs at the peak of caterpillar abundance. But, in the last ten years, there’s been a slow change. Gradually, the caterpillars have been arriving earlier. But the Tits still hatch on the same day.’

On average, the caterpillars arrive nine days earlier than they did 10 years ago. So, when the baby tits emerge from their shells, eager and hungry, the caterpillars have all turned into butterflies. ‘This can be disastrous for the tits,’ explains Breur. And they’re not alone.

‘Blue Herons nest in colonies in the trees,’ he continues. ‘They normally wait until there has been a period of frost before they start laying their eggs. If there is no frost period, they just keep on waiting.’

On the other hand, some birds benefit from the added warmth. Kingfishers feed by diving into fresh water and catching fish. Without the harsh winters, most waters don’t freeze over, and the Kingfishers can fatten up on the results. ‘And other birds,’ says Breur, ‘like thrushes, normally fly away in the winter. But now they’re staying. Also, some of the herbs aren’t dying off any more,’ he adds. ‘They keep on going throughout the winter.’ One example he mentions is cow parsley or fluitenkruid, which can still be found alongside many roads, where it’s a bit wet.

Even mosquitoes benefit from the warmth. ‘Normally they’re gone by October,’ says Breur, ‘but the other night I had one in my room. That’s definitely a noticeable change.’

And then come the crustaceans. ‘We have lobsters underwater in the canals. It used to be European lobsters. But now they’re all American. European lobsters are used to the waters freezing but the Americans are not. They cope better in the warmer waters. And they’re scaring away the smaller European lobsters. It’s hard to see them this time of year. But you should talk to Martin Melchers. He’s out in the field every day and sees all these things.’

Continental crustaceans

With seven nature books under his belt and almost 62 years behind him, Melchers must be the happiest man on the planet. He’s not at all worried about the climate, and he seems to derive nothing but pure joy in his observations of nature. The Bud-dhist quality of inner peace and happiness that he exudes is something that our grandchildren, for their own sanity, may be forced to adopt.

‘We are not a stable species,’ he says. ‘As Homo sapiens, we’ve been on the earth a very short time. In this short time, we’ve had a big influence—not just on the weather. We plunder the earth only for ourselves. We change the world in such a hurry. If we continue with that, we will disappear. But there’s no reason for fear. We still have a superb life. We are of course responsible for our actions. But if you can’t make a real influence, it doesn’t do any good to worry.’ He smiles, sips his fresh mint tea and his eyes get big. ‘Now, would you like to hear about the lobsters? Everyone thinks they can’t live through the harsh winters. But they can. I tested it.’

Melchers relates a story from about 10 years ago, when he was working as a physical therapist, his main occupation. ‘I caught some little baby lobsters and put them in a pond near my work. It was a very harsh winter. There were some bigger fish in the pond, and some of the babies got eaten. I didn’t know that would happen.’

But after a freezing period, the water eventually defrosted, and the young lobsters crawled out. ‘I was working in another room, and someone started shouting, “Martin. Maaartin!” The little lobsters were in the building trying to attack the patients,’ he laughs, slowly waving his open arms in the air and making pinching motions.

The lobsters in his story are spotted North American freshwater lobsters. They’re larger than their European brothers, and were brought over here on fishing ships. ‘There are five or six different breeds in the Netherlands. All of them are imported for consumption, but some escape. If they get into the water here, they’re very successful. You don’t know exactly what they’re doing down there. They eat, they fight. But as they increase in number, maybe other species will have to disappear.’

One species that’s almost completely disappeared are the smaller European lobsters. ‘There’s only one place in the Netherlands, in a little lake by a castle, where they still live.’ According to Melchers, one reason the American lobsters do so well here is because of a natural defence they have against a virus found in polluted waters. ‘The European lobsters have no defence against it.’ But the American lobsters have their own special problems.

‘There are lots of them in Amstelveen,’ he explains. ‘And how do they get there?They have to leave the water and go over the roads. Cars are coming and they try to attack the cars. Of course the cars are stronger and a lot of flat lobsters are left. The European lobsters never did that—only the Americans. But they are very tasty. I eat them.’

Special sightings

‘My wife’s birthday is on 8 January,’ says Melchers. ‘On that day I saw a daffodil. That was very early. Today when I was leaving my house, I saw flowers blooming in the garden that normally don’t bloom until March. I have seen a crocus blooming, too.’

According to De Natuurkalender, 240 types of trees have already been seen in bloom. Some of the trees think it’s still autumn, others believe we’re in spring. Normally, the number of blossoming trees right now is around 10 or 20. So, with all these buds sitting open, how dangerous is it if temperatures drop to freezing?

‘It’s no problem for the plants,’ says Melchers. ‘They can be unsuccessful for an entire year. If all the plants are damaged because it suddenly gets colder, or they have no reproduction, this is no problem. But we have to wait and see. This is the strangest winter I’ve ever experienced in Amsterdam. Maybe it’s one in a series.’

In the past hundred years, the highest average temperature in January here was 6.2°C. This month, the average has already topped eight degrees. Indeed, these are busy times for biologists, ecologists and their kin. ‘I’m looking at everything, not just plants,’ says Melchers, ‘also mammals, birds, crustaceans, amphibians, molluscs. I use nets, set traps, smell things. Next week I’m going to go catch some snakes. They’re this long.’ He holds his hands about a metre apart.

‘Now, I want to tell you about the natterjack toads. You know it was very hot this autumn—a new record since I-don’t-know-when. I was studying a population of the natterjacks in Westerpark. Mostly in the Netherlands they disappear by the end of September. I saw them for the whole month of October; I was very curious about that. Then they stayed through November, which is a new record. They were slowly decreasing in number during the entire time. But on 5 December, the day of Sinterklaas, I found one still swimming around. That was the most special thing for me all year.’

Meanwhile, at Artis Zoo, most of the animals have no idea what’s going on with the weather. They reside indoors with artificial climates maintained for their comfort. ‘But on 1 January, we did have a few baby ducks born,’ says Bart Kret, communications officer for the zoo. ‘That’s very early.’

Birds are particularly sensitive to the climate. ‘A lot of birds here go to Africa for the winter,’ explains Melchers. ‘When they come back, they need food to feed their young, and regain strength after the long journey.’ Migrating birds know exactly what the temperatures in Africa need to be to guarantee good timing on the return trip. ‘But now, life here is on a different rhythm. So they come back and there’s no food. And there’s no good reproduction of young birds.’

Along with the birds, plants are also migrating. But in this case, it’s in their benefit. ‘A lot of plants in southern Europe are suddenly appearing here. They jump north from city to city.’ Beyond simply blowing in the wind, seeds mostly hitch rides on animals and people. ‘A lot of us travel,’ says Melchers, ‘and under our shoes are all kinds of things. In my lectures, I show that more species have come here than have disappeared.’

Melchers is quick to add that, whether the climate continues in the same direction or takes a sudden shift in reverse, life will not end. That is to say, life in general—humans and polar bears might be done for, but the planet will go on. ‘The possibility to adapt is one of the most characteristic aspects of a successful species. They have the future.’


Warmer winters may mean extra comfort for humans, but scorching summers can easily follow. A large research project based in Amsterdam called Klimaat voor Ruimte focuses on adaptation, mitigation and possible climate scenarios. Project head Florrie de Pater explains: ‘Our eco-logical infrastructure must be adapted. We’re looking to see what can be done and how.’

Klimaat voor Ruimte have 40 different projects running, including how to improve the efficiency of plant and animal migration, and what we have to do to prevent our cities from heating up or having water related issues. They’re working closely with water boards and government agencies, and presenting clear, hard facts.

‘New York, for example, had a heat-wave last year. We know that their parks were ten degrees Celsius lower than the rest of the city. In the 2003 heatwave in Europe, twenty-six thousand people died of heat effects. Besides that, think of all the other people who didn’t die but had physical problems as a result.’

Solutions now focus on integrating man with nature. According to De Pater: ‘Planting vegetation on the roofs of buildings can help. It dampens the effects of heat. And of course, more trees. But the direction of the lines of trees in relation to the wind is also important. If the main wind direction is east, it’s good to plant trees in an easterly direction. This will make the summers cooler, and can lower energy consumption of houses by ten per cent. We want to prevent everyone from running to the store next summer and buying air conditioning units.’

Klimaat voor Ruimte are very much in favour of digging more canals in our city. ‘Water is optimal,’ says De Pater. ‘There must be more surface water in general, and it must be able to vary easily in levels. As you saw last summer, we’re getting much more intensive rains.’

But Klimaat voor Ruimte are a research group, which can mean a lot of waiting. ‘Some of our projects started two years ago, and those results will come out soon. Other projects must still begin,’ offers De Pater. Perhaps for humans, the most difficult element of adaptation involves transforming words into action.