I was walking to my car last month when I noticed something squirming in a tangle of twigs piled against the curb.
Once close enough I could see that it was a snake, a gorgeous snake maybe 2 feet long with dark olive and yellow stripes running the length of its body. A thin band of bright red scales appeared like racing stripes down each side.
Other than buzzworms I’m not much of a herpetologist, so I didn’t know until later that the snake was a common red-sided garter — apparently the snake-naming union was on strike when this critter received its handle.
It was a remarkably warm day for February, nearly 60. This garter snake, a species that normally hibernates through winter, had been lured outside and onto the pavement by the Fool’s Spring, one of many this winter. The snake squirmed as I approached rather than escaped because its back was broken, likely it was run over as it basked on the sun-warmed road.
It’s hard to complain about warm days in February, or March for that matter. We hit the mid-70s a few days ago, but three days before that the weather tried to kill us. The high had been just 12 degrees, and overnight lows were below zero four days straight.
Sadly, the spell will soon be broken. Snow is forecast this week.
Fool’s Spring is what these intervals of warmer winter days are called in internet memes. Gallows humor about deplorable weather is one of the rights bestowed upon those of us living in four-season climates. It’s of the same vein as the joke there are but two seasons in Montana: winter and road construction.
More sciency types call these warm spells false springs. False springs aren’t new, just more common as the climate warms and grows less stable. Meteorologically speaking, spring arrives three days earlier in the United States than it did in 1980. By mid-century it could be another 13 days early.
The meteorological system marks the changing seasons based on atmospheric conditions, rather than the astronomical system used in most of the world. That system, which pegs the arrival of spring this year as March 20, is based on the Earth’s position in relation to the Sun.
In the middle of a hard winter, joking that global warming is exactly what we need, right now, seems a reasonable coping mechanism. I’m not about to criticize anyone for the story they tell themselves to survive February but come summer we all know our self-deception wouldn’t necessarily be so wonderful.
Along the way to a spring 13 days early, we’ll probably burn off every low- and mid-elevation forest in the Northern Rockies.
Imagine the Yellowstone fires of 1988 as a normal June occurrence. That’s the probable result of Montana spring arriving mid-February, year after year. As I write this, the Natural Resources Conservation Service snowpack map sports a lot of green in western Montana. Green is good. Green means river basins with 90 to 110% of snowpack for an average season. That usually means good summer conditions for floaters, anglers and irrigators, if it lasts.
And most of us have endured a March or two that left those percentages even higher by April Fool’s Day. If false spring becomes normal spring, however, green will give way to orange and red on that snowpack map. My poor garter snake, felled by temptation, will no longer be a tragic exception, but the rule.
There is one false spring we can lock arms in solidarity behind. It’s called Scottsdale, Arizona. Scottsdale in February is where every snake is empowered to venture forth in search of warm surfaces to bask upon.
I’d prefer that not include buzzworms, but I suppose even rattlesnakes are entitled to enjoy winter in Arizona.
Rob Breeding’s website is www.mthookandbullet.com.
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