Year 3, Month 2, Day 7: Don’t Forget To Mulch

The Albany Times-Union runs another piece on the USDA hardiness zones:

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture updated its Plant Hardiness Zone Map for the first time since 1990. This is the colorful map that is on the back of most seed packs that helps gardeners match their region’s climate to plants’ climatic tolerances.

The updated map has many new features, including finer-scale resolution and more interactive technology such as the ability to view specific regions by ZIP code. However, the most notable change is a nationwide shift in planting zones to reflect how climate change is altering our climate and plant-growing regions. The vast majority of the country finds itself in a warmer zone, including large areas of the Capital Region and the rest of New York.

This update makes concrete what many researchers have been saying for some time: that climate change is not just the province of the future.

I have a lot to do this evening, so I just re-used another letter on the same subject — rearranged all the words, used synonyms as appropriate, etc., etc., etc. Sent February 1:

The new map of hardiness zones from the USDA will probably make some gardeners very happy. What’s not to like about locally-grown mangos in Minnesota? But as we change our seed orders to reflect these new climatic norms, we need to remember that they’re only temporary benefits — and they aren’t unmixed blessings.

For every new tropical fruit or vegetable we can grow, we’ll lose some of the resilience and interconnectedness of our local and regional ecosystems. Beneficial flora and fauna may suffer from changing weather conditions or the introduction of invasive insects and plants from hotter regions (perhaps the most genuinely dangerous class of illegal immigrant).

The agricultural infrastructure which provides our corn and wheat is extremely vulnerable to the epiphenomena of the rapidly burgeoning greenhouse effect. The USDA’s map makes for pleasant contemplation in the short run — but the longer-term picture is not a pretty one.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 2, Day 2: By The Time The Jackfruit Trees Are Fully Grown, It’ll Be Too Hot

The Chicago Sun-Times is one of many papers noting the USDA’s new map of hardiness zones:

WASHINGTON — Global warming is hitting not just home, but garden. The color-coded map of planting zones often seen on the back of seed packets is being updated by the government, illustrating a hotter 21st century.

It’s the first time since 1990 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has revised the official guide for the nation’s 80 million gardeners, and much has changed. Nearly entire states, such as Ohio, Nebraska and Texas, are in warmer zones.

The new guide, unveiled Wednesday at the National Arboretum, arrives just as many home gardeners are receiving their seed catalogs and dreaming of lush flower beds in the spring.

It reflects a new reality: The coldest day of the year isn’t as cold as it used to be, so some plants and trees can now survive farther north.

Short-term and long-term. Long-term and short-term. Yick. Sent January 27:

While gardeners in Northern parts of the country will welcome the USDA’ revised map of hardiness zones, the fact remains that any benefits from a changing climate are temporary. As the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs gigatonnes of carbon dioxide from our civilization’s consumption of fossil-fuel, the greenhouse effect will intensify, with potentially catastrophic effects for all of us.

Sure, growing figs in Boston will be fun (and tasty!). But as we smack our lips over the new local availability of produce that formerly traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to reach our stores, let’s remember: a rapidly warming planet is going to wreak havoc on our agricultural infrastructure; the monocropped farms providing much of America’s corn and wheat are vulnerable to the rapid temperature shifts and anomalous storms which global climate change will bring. The USDA map confirms that in the long run, we’re likely to reap a harvest of disaster.

Warren Senders

Year 2, Month 3, Day 30: How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down On The Farm?

The Washington Post reports on a new initiative from the US Department of Agriculture:

MINNEAPOLIS — The federal government is investing $60 million in three major studies on the effects of climate change on crops and forests to help ensure farmers and foresters can continue producing food and timber while trying to limit the impact of a changing environment.

The three studies take a new approach to crop and climate research by bringing together researchers from a wide variety of fields and encouraging them to find solutions appropriate to specific geographic areas. One study will focus on Midwestern corn, another on wheat in the Northwest and a third on Southern pine forests.

Shifting weather patterns already have had a big effect on U.S. agriculture, and the country needs to prepare for even greater changes, said Roger Beachy, director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And since the changes are expected to vary from region to region, he said different areas will need different solutions. Some areas may gain longer growing seasons or suffer more frequent floods, while others may experience more droughts or shorter growing seasons.

Given that the WaPo has been climate-denial central in its OpEd pages for years (George Will primus inter pares), it’s always refreshing to see that its news division can still reprint an article from the AP.

Sent March 21:

It’s good news that the Department of Agriculture is putting some money towards preparation for the multivariate threats presented by runaway climate change. There is no doubt that the extreme weather events that accompany global warming present a grave danger to America’s agricultural productivity. Severe precipitation can erode farmland, destroy crop plants, or affect cultivation and harvesting. Furthermore, given the prevalence of monocultures on most large-scale farms, it is sobering to realize that regional temperature increases of only a few degrees can impact plant productivity significantly. But the USDA’s research isn’t enough. We must recognize throughout this country that denial of climatic facts is no longer an option; “tea-party” Republicans and timid coal-state Democrats both need to address scientific reality. There is no time to waste. If we fail to act decisively on the causes of anthropogenic global warming, a devastated agricultural system will be the least of our worries.

Warren Senders