What WNY gardeners should know about climate science

climate change illustration copyright Stofko
Illustration by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

Climate change is real

We can see the effects of climate change in our area.

Our gardening zones in Western New York were changed to reflect our warmer temperatures. The US Department of Agriculture website unveiled a new map of gardening zones in 2012 and noted: “The new map is generally one 5-degree Fahrenheit half-zone warmer than the previous map throughout much of the United States.”

One of the effects of climate change in our area is that you may be able to grow plants that you weren’t able to grow before because our area was too cold. That’s exciting for gardeners.

But there are bad effects, too.

We may see more drought, like we did last summer, according to Cornell University. When we do get rain during the summer, it may come in short bursts. The rain pounds on dry, hard-packed soil that can’t absorb the rain, and the water runs off.

Even though our area is, on average, warmer than it was before, we may get more lake-effect snow. (Climate and weather are complicated!)  The lake-effect snow is a result of warmer lake surface waters and decreased ice cover, according to Confronting Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region: Impacts on Our Communities and Ecosystems, a report of the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Ecological Society of America.

While we may have warm summers, you might not be able to spend as much time outdoors as you’d like because of poor air quality, according to the same report. More days with high heat may exacerbate the formation of dangerous levels of ozone. A warming climate will increase the severity, and potentially the number, of summertime pollution episodes in the region, due in part to decreased air movement in more stagnant air masses and a reduction in pollution-ventilating storms that sweep across the Great Lakes states. More frequent and widespread forest fires can make the problem worse.

And some of the effects are mixed. The new conditions can encourage new pests and diseases, but discourage others, according to Confronting Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region: Impacts on Our Communities and Ecosystems.

People are affecting the climate

“Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver,” according to a 2009 statement on climate change from 18 scientific associations. “These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science.”

Climate scientists are in agreement

Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities. In addition, most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position. You can see a partial list of these organizations on the NASA website, along with links to their published statements and a selection of related resources.

What do we do with this information on climate science?

Here’s where it gets tricky. Now we’re not talking science anymore, we’re talking politics. Who wants to do that? Not me!

But climate change is an important issue that affects gardeners. There’s an old joke that goes something like this: “Weather is something that everybody talks about, but nobody does anything about.” It’s funny because there’s nothing anybody can do about weather. If there’s a downpour just when you want to leave for your picnic, too bad.

But climate isn’t weather. Climate is the long-term pattern of weather. And scientists have been telling us for years that what we humans have been doing has been changing these patterns.

So we need to figure out, as a matter of public policy, how we should address climate change. And the way we get to public policy is through politics.

This isn’t the fun part of gardening. But it’s important.

We can try some easy tactics. We can pretend that the scientific evidence isn’t there. We can tell ourselves that the idea of climate change is still being debated and that scientists don’t agree. We could just dismiss researchers as a bunch of intellectuals who don’t know what they’re talking about. All of that is like saying that there is no connection between smoking and health problems, yet decades of research show that smoking can cause cancer and other diseases. When we’re making public policy, whether it’s concerning smoking or climate change, we can’t ignore the science.

Maybe here in Western New York, the change in climate won’t be so bad, at least not at first. Yes, there’s the pollution problem in the summer and the droughts and invasive pests, but we may be able to grow plants that we couldn’t grow before.

But we can’t just enjoy warmer weather and overlook the pollution problem and droughts and invasive pests. We don’t get to pick and choose which effects of climate change we want and which we don’t want. We can’t control climate change; it’s like a car without a steering wheel.

But that car does have brakes. We can take steps to slow down climate change, according to Confronting Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region: Impacts on Our Communities and Ecosystems.

The report recommends three complementary approaches:

Reducing the region’s contribution to the global problem of heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions
Although some warming is inevitable as a result of historical emissions of CO2, many of the most damaging impacts can be avoided if the pace and eventual severity of climate change are moderated. Strategies for reducing emissions include increasing energy efficiency and conservation in industries and homes, boosting the use of renewable energy sources such as wind power, improving vehicle fuel efficiency, reducing the number of miles driven, avoiding waste, and recycling.

Minimizing human pressures on the global and local environment to reduce the vulnerability of ecosystems and vital ecological services to climate change
Prudent actions include reducing air pollution, protecting the quality of water supplies as well as aquatic habitats, reducing urban sprawl and attendant habitat destruction and fragmentation, restoring critical habitats, and preventing the spread of invasive nonnative species.

Anticipating and planning for the impacts of change to reduce future damage
This may include a wide range of adaptations, from shifts in fisheries management and farming activities to changes in building codes and public health management plans to prepare for extreme weather events. Climate change is already making an impact on the environment of the Great Lakes region. Waiting to begin reducing emissions or to plan for managing the effects of climate change only increases the eventual expense and the potential for irreversible losses. Fortunately, many of the actions that can be taken now to prevent the most damaging impacts of climate change can also provide immediate collateral benefits such as cost savings, cleaner air and water, improved habitat and recreational opportunities, and enhanced quality of life in communities throughout the region.

So what will you do as a gardener and as a citizen when it comes to climate change?


11 Comments on “What WNY gardeners should know about climate science

  1. Unfortunately, you left out a key component of what is contributing the most to climate change on this planet — animal agriculture. For those of you not familiar with the topic, there is an excellent movie streaming on Netflix called “Cowspiracy”. It provides scientific research that points to what we put on our plates 3 times a day having a direct impact on climate change. To continue to blatantly ignore the connection does not make it go away.

  2. I was outside shoveling this afternoon and noticed that my bulb plants are coming up, too. If they’re covered in snow, you won’t see them. (Or perhaps they don’t sprout as fast when they’re covered in snow.) But they can take lots more snow and cold. Unless the weather gets unseasonably in March or April, they probably won’t bloom any sooner than they usually do. I noticed green leaves on my iris a few weeks back and covered them with autumn leaves– only to protect them from the rabbits.

  3. Thanks Connie….It is the plants that are sprouting out of the soil that are coming up…as we had temps of 40-60 , NO snow & plenty of sunshine in January. We usually get this in March/April! Mostly Dutch Iris bulbs that are sprouting. I appreciate your answer! I am going to try & send a picture.

  4. Cindy, do you mean that they have sprouted? If, so they should be fine. I start to notice my daffodils and hyacinths around now. You probably just never noticed them before. It will still be awhile before they flower. If you mean the plant is heaving out of the ground, that’s not good. You don’t want the roots to come out of the ground. If that’s happening, gently press the roots back down with your foot. You can put mulch around your perennials to keep them from heaving out of the ground. Fallen leaves work well for that, or if you happen to have a leftover Christmas tree, cut off some branches and set them around the plant.

  5. Connie, Some of my perennials, especially the spring bulbs we planted this past fall, are 6 inches out of the ground…Is this going to affect them this year, since we have a lot more winter weather in North Boston?? HELP!!

  6. Kind of scary. I know some people who still don’t believe we’re affecting the climate. And now who knows what Mr.Trump will do to dismantle the past progress we’ve made with greenhouse gas reduction. I’m 63 and don’t remember a hotter, drier summer than what we had last year.

  7. Important topic that affects all of us. We can plant drought smart plants to offset the effects of reduced rainfall and plant less grass. Hopefully the cost of alternative energy sources will come down so that more of us can afford to switch.

  8. I’m very glad to see this content! Climate change is real, and we need to acknowledge how it affects so many aspects of our lives and the lives of the plants and animals around us, especially now that our government is dominated by people who deny those facts.

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