Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Monday, March 30, 2020

What is normalcy these days?

Was that a chewink! that I just heard? That zree sound, although not quite right, had to have been the first-of-year towhee to arrive on our property in 2020. This Eastern Towhee or Pipilo erythrophthalmus (what a name) wasn’t getting his "drink-your-tea" song quite right but given that he had probably flown quite some distance overnight, I cut him a little slack. Plus, I am very happy to have him back for the spring and summer, even if he seems to have arrived a week or two early.

Eastern Towhee (photo by Dave Husic)
There is very little routine in our schedules these days in this new era of COVID-19. Our lives have become filled with uncertainty, fear, and perhaps, for many, even dread. The only certain thing is that we are all experiencing too much screen time. The Husic household is doing online teaching (or learning), too many Zoom meetings, and grading student work sent in digital formats. It has become challenging to separate work from personal time when you are home, 24-7. However, because, like so many others, I am now obligated to from home, I have the luxury to sneak out for a walk or to do a bit of birding during the day. It was during my morning walk today that I heard my feathered friend’s invitation to tea.

Is it “shelter in place” or “take refuge”? The latter sounds slightly more soothing. I am very fortunate to live on some acreage where I can sneak out the backdoor and still easily practice my isolation/social distancing/physical separation from other Homo sapiens, while enjoying the local biodiversity. Since we head into April this week, the species of plants and birds that will greet me each day will steadily increase. I have already welcomed the Spring Peepers, Wood Frogs, and American Woodcocks, along with daffodil, crocus, hellebore, hyacinth, coltsfoot, winter aconite and Magnolia stellate (star magnolia) blooms. I know, I should be more consistent with my Latin name usage. Perhaps this is something to work on if we are sheltering for a very long time.

Over the past several weeks, I have developed the bad habit of checking the dashboard set up by John Hopkins University a few times each day. We are closing in on three-quarters of a million “official” cases of coronavirus globally, but we all know that is a gross underestimate of the real tally. Odd that as a scientist, I am fascinated by numbers and graphs, but have long struggled with binomial nomenclature.

This semester, I am teaching an environmental health course which is an interesting way to apply my environmental and biomedical training and experience. Back in January – week #2 of the course to be exact – the students and I started tracking the coronavirus outbreak in China. Nothing like a real-time case study to raise all sorts of interesting questions from students about the growing zoonotic threats from human-wildlife contact, habitat disruption, and the illegal wildlife trade. With all the sophisticated data tracking that is available, it was also a good way to teach 21st century epidemiology (compared to the dreaded textbook chapter) and it certainly is an update from the early mapping that John Snow did during the 1854 cholera outbreak in Soho, London. Apple watches, Fitbits, and smart thermometers record body temperature (including fevers), resting-heart-rate and sleep-duration data, and we can track movement of people via cell phone signals. But I digress.

Perhaps we were a little too close to the information; as a class, we quickly predicted that a) this was going to impact us (as in in the U.S.) and b) that as a country, we were not doing the necessary preparations or precautions. In other words, we were going to be statistics in that case study. I wonder how many of our public health and nursing students are now rethinking their career choices as they realize that the textbook content can be not only relevant, but *real*.


Set up a routine. Try to find some semblance of normalcy in your days. Such is the advice that is being shared. Getting outdoors provides some exercise and fresh air, a reprieve from the screens, and gets me out of my sweatpants. It is also important for my mental health. Daily, I can see things getting greener – those unique hues of spring green, prettier than any in a Crayola box. Bulbs and some trees are already coming into bloom and migratory birds are starting to return. We have already had early visitors: a Tree Swallow, House Wren and, today, the Towhee.

While these things do provide some escape from the case fatality rates and depressing media feeds, they are far from normal. Anyone from eastern Pennsylvania knows that we had an unusually mild winter and that the months of February and March were much warmer than normal.

According to NOAA Global Climate Report for February 2020:
Averaged as a whole, February 2020 was near-record warm with a global land and ocean surface temperature departure from average of 1.17°C (2.11°F) above the 20th century average. Only February 2016 was warmer. This month marked the 44th consecutive February and the 422nd consecutive month with temperatures, at least nominally, above the 21th century average. The 10 warmest Februarys have occurred since 1998. The February 2020 temperature departure from average was also the third highest monthly temperature departure from average for any month in the 1,682-month record. Only March 2016 (+1.31°C / +2.36°F) and February 2016 (+1.26°C / +2.27°F) had a higher temperature departure.

This follows a similar situation from January:
The global land and ocean surface temperature for January 2020 was the highest in the 141-year record, with a temperature departure from average of 1.14°C (2.05°F) above the 20th century average. This value was only 0.02°C (0.04°F) higher than the now second highest January temperature departure from average set in 2016. The four warmest Januaries on record have occurred since 2016...

And from 2019:
The year 2019 was the second warmest year in the 140-year record, with a global land and ocean surface temperature departure from average of +0.95°C (+1.71°F). This value is only 0.04°C (0.07°F) less than the record high value of +0.99°C (+1.78°F) set in 2016 and 0.02°C (0.04°F) higher than the now third highest value set in 2015 (+0.93°C / +1.67°F).
I know that this sounds really technical. Remember, this scientist likes numbers and graphs. I also pay attention to phenology – the timing of seasonal events such as bloom times and first dates of arrival of migrating birds in spring. The impact of this year’s mild winter in the east was obvious when I started hearing about reports of cherry blossoms opening at the end of February. According to the National Park Service, the full (peak) bloom was in mid-March, thirteen days ahead of 2019. Historically, the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, DC had been taking place during the first two weeks in April. [1]

In general, people appreciate an early spring. Why else would so many people tune in to see what Punxsutawney Phil predicts on February 2nd? This year, we hope that the warming weather will slow the nasty virus that is controlling our lives right now. But the early signs of spring that I watch year after year are unsettling to me. The early arrivals and bloom times are not normal.

Years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in their 2007 Nobel Prize winning work the 4th Assessment Report:
Phenology …. is perhaps the simplest process in which to track changes in the ecology of species in response to climate change.
This year, 2020, will go down in history as the year after which nothing was the same. The pandemic we are all watching in horror is only one part of the global change in our future.

1. Chung U, Mack L, Yun JI, Kim S-H (2011) Predicting the Timing of Cherry Blossoms in Washington, DC and Mid-Atlantic States in Response to Climate Change. PLoS ONE 6(11): e27439.; available here

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