What’s Not So Peachy About Early Spring In A Warming World?

Probably like many of you, I have really enjoyed the nice weather this… winter?… spring?… this February and March nonetheless. Enjoyed it a lot. It’s allowed me to spend time outdoors much more so than usual at this time of year, getting an early start on the gardening season and new hobby of exploring the local waterways by kayak. With the exception of the cloud of pollen hanging in the air, this season has been pretty great.

But glorious early spring weather isn’t all good, especially for some farmers. A recent article in the Southeast Farm Press caught my eye about how the early spring might affect Georgia’s pecan crop. It turns out that pecan trees are breaking dormancy about three weeks early, and if a freeze were to occur–which wouldn’t normally considered abnormal for this season–the tender growth could get zapped and reduce or even wipe out the pecan crop. In an interview with WALB in Albany, GA, pecan grower Roy Goodson said, “The first bud gets frozen, we won’t have nuts on it this year, it will be next year before it can have nuts again.” It’s not just pecan trees that have this problem, but rather most orchard crops–apples, peaches, plums, grapes, and more. When spring-like weather comes earlier than normal, the risk increases of the trees budding out and having their buds or blossoms frozen, thus wiping out the year’s crop. Such a cold front is moving into the Southeast as I write this, raising great concern among many farmers.

Last hard freeze dates have become later in the southeastern part of the region (red), while becoming earlier in the western part of the region (blue).

This isn’t the first year in recent memory such threats have faced orchards in the Southeast. The 2007 “Easter freeze”, which came after unseasonably warm spring weather, destroyed peach crops in South Carolina by as much as 85 percent, in Georgia by as much as 68 percent, and in Virginia by 80-100 percent, altogether causing about $2 billion in damages to farmers. The weather this season is undeniably “unseasonable,” and can be largely attributed to yearly weather variability, although some evidence points to the fact that such false springs are becoming more frequent in a large region of the Southeast–Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and eastern North Carolina. Furthermore, spring is coming earlier in general. “On average,” Climate Central reports, “spring is arriving three days earlier in the U.S. compared to the period of 1961-1980. The quickening pace of climate change means that spring could be up to 13 days earlier by mid-century and 21 days earlier by 2100 if carbon pollution isn’t cut.” Potentially adding to the problem is that research is beginning to show that as the climate warms, the jet steam becomes less stable and leads to extreme cold snap events such as the frigid “Polar Vortex” events in 2014 and 2015.

I’m hoping that farmers make it through this cold snap alright and I’m looking forward to getting back to the great weather we’ve been enjoying as of late, but I also hope that this season’s weather will also serve as an opportunity for folks to consider that not everything about this early spring weather is so peachy. Failing to act on climate change can have far-reaching impacts, such as harming the farmers of some of our favorite regional foods.

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