Seasons in Flux: How the New Climate Reality is Disrupting the Calendar for Parks

On the first day of February, the National Weather Service measured its first snow of the season (0.4 inches, to be exact) on the ground in Central Park just before the morning rush hour. Snow hasn’t fallen this late into winter since 1869, when weather record-taking first began. And it arrived just hours after the clock struck midnight on the warmest January since then as well: a month when temperatures were above average on all 31 days. This marked 328 days straight without snow—a snowless streak previously eclipsed in December of 2020.

New Yorkers not only feel the difference; they see it in their parks. What are typically quieter months in greenspaces are notably busy this year, as days have felt more reminiscent of mid-November than late January. In Central Park and other parks across the City, there are less sledders and snowplows, more runners and cyclists.

A New Normal

These patterns, of course, are part of a larger shift underway due to climate change. It’s a phenomenon that the people who care for Central Park everyday have increasingly seen firsthand for years now. In extensive interviews for the Central Park Climate Lab, Central Park Conservancy staff members detail a new normal in the ways in which an urban park is planned for and operates, from planting seasons and choices to labor constraints and challenges. This warm winter was just the latest example.

The first time Neddie Hernandez, a gardener on the Conservancy’s landscape management team, became aware of the impact the alarmingly warm winter weather had on the Park was when she started working near the Jackie Kennedy Onassis Reservoir two decades ago. It was a mid-January day so balmy that all she needed to wear was a hoodie. Busy weeding, she noticed something strange. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘This ground should not be pliable,’” she says. “‘I should not be able to put my shovel through this ground.’”

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Daffodils typically bloom from late March through early April in New York City, as pictured here in Shakespeare Garden, April 2020. However more and more frequently, the bright bulbs are blooming as early as December and January, as the Friends of Morningside Park captured on their Instagram on an unseasonably warm day in January 2023.

She’d see softer grounds as the years went on. When she moved to Shakespeare Garden, where she now works, visitors flocked in mid-December to see daffodils in bloom. (Observers saw a similar sighting this January in parks all over the City.) It’s not the climate she grew up with, she says, but it’s the climate she’s come to expect. “You've gotten kind of used to seeing it, but never without a little feeling that it's wrong.”

Below the Snow

Pliable soil lasting longer has led the Central Park Conservancy’s gardeners to plant earlier in the year and remove them later. It’s causing a reexamination of what they plant, too—warmer summers will require more drought-tolerant species in the future, Conservancy staff members say, while higher frequencies of rainfall and storms demand species that can withstand the elements.

But it’s not just what’s above ground that’s affected. Snow cover is integral to the natural landscape in the Northeast, says Eric Whitaker, the Conservancy’s manager of natural areas care. It insulates the ground, preventing it from freezing too deep. Losing that has ecological consequences.

“The little creatures in what’s called the subnivean—there's a lot of habitat between the leaf litter—they actually really need snowpack for some of the year,” he says. This is the home to small mammals, like mice and squirrels. Without snow, these animals can struggle with surviving colder temperatures, or seek shelter elsewhere, like water bodies.

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The subnivean zone is the area between the surface of the ground and the bottom of the snowpack. It not only insulates the ground but offers small mammals a habitat and place to retreat for protection.

What grows in the Park could change, too, with species more common in the South likely to proliferate. This doesn’t necessarily spell doom for the native species dependent on these plants and animals, Eric adds. Ecosystems are adaptive, although the longer-lasting effects are still unclear. “It’s not like the specimen trees will start to go away,” he says, of the trees chosen as a focal point in a landscape. “But maybe certain species will start to overtake in reproduction.”

The End of Predictability

It’s also allowing plants to grow for longer. This Magazine has covered what longer summers, shorter winters, and more rainfall—what one operations staff member described as more of a “tropical rainforest” climate—have meant for dangerous algal blooms. But Conservancy staff members are contending with similar results throughout the Park.

Harmful algal blooms, a green, paint-like substance, on the surface of the Lake, with Bow Bridge in the background.

Harmful algal blooms commonly occur throughout New York City’s water bodies each summer, seen here on the Lake. These clusters of organisms are destructive because they can lower oxygen levels in natural waters and prevent light from reaching fish and underwater plants. In the most extreme cases, this leads to “dead zones” that are uninhabitable for most wildlife.

“If the temperatures are mild early on, we'll see a sort of fairly extensive growth, whether it's in perennials or in shrubs,” says David Bayne, manager of landscape management at the Conservancy. “But then as you go into summer, it's harder for those plants to sustain that growth. So, then they struggle and that then tends to leave space for what can survive.”

Landscape teams are forced to respond, David adds, reallocating time spent on other crucial tasks to contend with the overgrowth of species, like goosegrass. But increasingly hot summers also mean that staff members must take more frequent breaks, out of concern for heat exhaustion. “We’re just unable to work as much,” he says.

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Snow offers cushioning and protection for lawns, which typically spend the quiet winter months resting and preparing for spring and summer. The Park’s lawns are experiencing more foot traffic than usual this winter, which is compounded by wet, unfrozen soil. The exposed soil is at high risk of erosion and colonization by weeds, seen here on Sheep Meadow in February 2023.

One constant that arose in interviews with Central Park Conservancy staff members about their experiences with a shifting climate was a sense of unpredictability. Not knowing whether to trust the weather report. Not knowing if there will be a major storm this season. Not knowing if rainfall will lead to flooding. And, most recently, not knowing whether snow will come or not.

The bulk of work for Matt Reiley, the Conservancy’s manager of conservation, comes in the summer, when his team uses blowtorches and other devices to restore and preserve the Park’s original designs. The past two summers, though, have been some of the wettest and hottest on record, putting a strain on what can get done then. “It’s like, can I get a break here? It seems like it keeps accelerating rather than oscillating,” he says.

“When you were a kid, you had real expectations in your mind that things were gonna be a certain way,” he continues. “Those are out the window now.”

Leveraging both data and staff insights, the Central Park Climate Lab aims to develop solutions to confront these growing climate challenges head on. Adaptability and resiliency are integral to preparing Central Park—and, frankly, all urban parks—for this new normal. The more informed that the Conservancy can make those decisions, the better.

John Surico is the Scholar-in-Residence at the Conservancy’s Institute for Urban Parks, which provides critical assistance and support to parks throughout New York City and across the globe.