The North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) is a large-scale pattern of climate variability that has been shown to have important ecological effects on a wide spectrum of taxa. Studies on terrestrial invertebrates are, however, lacking. We studied climate-connected causes of changes in population sizes in island populations of the spittlebug Philaenus spumarius (L.) (Homoptera). Three populations living in meadows on small Baltic Sea islands were investigated during the years 1970–2005 in Tvärminne archipelago, southern Finland. A separate analysis was done on the effects of NAO and local climate variables on spittlebug survival in 1969–1978, for which survival data existed for two islands. We studied survival at two stages of the life cycle: growth rate from females to next year's instars (probably mostly related to overwintering egg survival), and survival from third instar stage to adult. The latter is connected to mortality caused by desiccation of plants and spittle masses.
Higher winter NAO values were consistently associated with smaller population sizes on all three islands. Local climate variables entering the most parsimonious autoregressive models of population abundance were April and May mean temperature, May precipitation, an index of May humidity, and mean temperature of the coldest month of the previous winter. High winter NAO values had a clear negative effect on late instar survival in 1969–1978. Even May–June humidity and mean temperature of the coldest month were associated with late instar survival. The climate variables studied (including NAO) had no effect on the growth rate from females to next year's instars.
NAO probably affected the populations primarily in late spring. Cold and snowy winters contribute to later snow melt and greater spring humidity in the meadows. We show that winter NAO has a considerable lagged effect on April and May temperature; even this second lagged effect contributes to differences in humidity. The lagged effect of the winter NAO to spring temperatures covers a large area in northern Europe and has been relatively stationary for 100 years at least in the Baltic area.