Most people hate severe winters; the long, cold, grey days do not encourage outdoor activities. Travel difficulties and delays make commuters late for work and late home. Elderly people worry about falling in the icy, snowy weather. Winter fuel bills are horrendous. It seems that severe winters only have disadvantages, but severe winters do have benefits.
Icy, snowy weather has benefits for humans, animals, and plants, and mild winters have their downsides. Many people believe that severe weather causes human viruses, but it is not quite true. It is not the severe winter weather that causes viruses to spread; it is rather that humans tend to stay shut up indoors together, during such weather. Central heating and humans shut up together is what spreads the viruses, not the cold. Germs thrive well in warm, damp conditions. However, severe winter weather is generally cold and dry, the exact opposite of what viruses need to survive, so it is true to say that severe winter weather kills viruses.
Unseasonably mild winters play havoc with plant and animal behaviour. When the weather is unseasonably warm, plants and animals may adopt spring behaviour, if then the weather turns cold again, they can die. Shooting plants may suffer frost damage. Animals and birds may begin breeding and lose their young. Hibernating animals may come out of hibernation too early and die.
However, some plants need severe winter weather as part of their growing cycle. Parsnips, carrots and celeriac improve their flavour after cold winter weather. Brussels sprouts and kale produce sugars during hard frosty conditions, which improves their rather bitter flavour. Leeks also behave similarly, although onions and garlic from the same family react badly to frost, as do most other vegetables. You can grow frost-resistant vegetables. Some flowering plants, such as snowdrops, have their own in-built anti-freeze to prevent cold weather damage. Some seeds require severe winter weather to germinate properly.
Animals and birds know when the winter will be severe. Most animals grow thicker coats to cope with a prospective severe winter. Birds migrate earlier. Most wild animals prepare for winter by eating more in the late summer and autumn, putting on a layer of fat to keep them warm in the winter. For hibernating animals, this fat layer sustains them until warm weather in spring wakens them.
Although it sounds a little gruesome, severe weather kills weaker animals, birds and plants, ensuring that only the strongest and fittest breed in the spring. This works the same for plants, ensuring that the plants breeding the next spring are the healthiest.
Severe winter weather keeps the pest population down, killing rats and mice and other pests.
Unseasonably mild winters upset nature’s fine balance. When severe winter weather comes at the right time, nature work, as it should.