This month has been an exciting one for climatologists around the United States with the November 14 release of the Fifth National Climate Assessment (NCA5), a massive project that is undertaken every four years to capture our current understanding of climate change based on recent research. I was a chapter author for the Southeast and spent the last two years working with over 700 authors around the United States to gather and document how the climate is changing and how it is affecting all of us. This week I will explain how NCA5 was put together, what it says about climate, and what gardeners can do to help reduce the future impacts of global warming and other climate changes. But this month was also exciting because USDA just released an updated Plant Hardiness Zone map, just a few weeks after my post in October about how the 2012 map was outdated. I guess they were listening (just kidding!). I will discuss that briefly at the end of this post, too.
What is the National Climate Assessment?
The National Climate Assessment (NCA) is a report mandated by Congress to compile the latest scientific findings on how climate is changing so that we can respond to reduce its future impacts. It is published every four years, and the last one (the 4th NCA) was released on the day after Thanksgiving in 2017. While the underlying message has not changed, each assessment focuses on the newest scientific research that has been published since the last assessment was done. The document is divided into chapters so that the authors of each chapter could concentrate on that topic.
NCA5 starts with a review of the general scientific principles of how the climate is changing. That is followed by seventeen chapters focused on national topics such as agriculture, water, energy, and transportation as well as specific groups that are being especially affected by climate change such as indigenous peoples. Following the national topics, chapters address changes that are happening in ten different regions of the country . These address how we need to reduce future greenhouse gas emissions that are driving the warming of the earth as well as how we can adapt to the changes that are already happening now and may get worse in the future.
How was NCA5 produced?
There is a long process involved in producing a national climate assessment. Teams of scientists from an array of disciplines were chosen as authors for each chapter to write the initial text of the document. To keep the authors on task and within tight word limits, there were lead chapter authors and technical advisors who moderated group meetings where the key messages for our chapter were identified. Initial figures to include in each chapter were drafted by a graphics team or requested from scientific journals. After the first draft was complete it was first reviewed by federal agencies to make sure that their concerns were addressed and then by the public, who provided many additional comments. All of these comments were provided to the chapter authors so they could refine their text and figures for the next draft. In all, the document when through six different reviews and all comments were addressed.
Where can I read NCA5 and learn more about what it says?
The NCA contains a vast amount of information in its 32 chapters, five appendices, and special topics, so it is hard to summarize. I encourage you to explore the document online to see what it says about your region and special topics of interest like agriculture, land, and ecosystems. A good starting place is the introductory website https://www.globalchange.gov/our-work/fifth-national-climate-assessment, which explains how the report was written and provides links to read the report, attend a webinar on an individual chapter, and see where the figures came from. I also encourage you to explore the excellent interactive atlas developed in conjunction with the report. Many other resources such as podcasts are available, too.
What are some steps that gardeners can take to respond to climate change?
There are two approaches that gardeners (and all of us) need to take to respond to the challenges of a changing climate. We are already dealing with the consequences of trends towards warmer temperatures and more extreme swings in the water cycle such as increases in floods and droughts. Gardeners are adapting to these changes in climate by planting different plants that are better suited to the warmer climate and changing how they manage their gardens using rain gardens, drip irrigation, and other techniques. Adaptation is a key approach that gardeners will continue to need to follow as the climate continues to get warmer and more variable.
In addition all of us, including gardeners, have a responsibility to cut the emissions of additional fossil fuels which are driving most of the warming (mitigation is reducing the inputs to prevent future harm). This will reduce the impacts that our world will have to navigate in the future. Even a small decrease in the emission of greenhouse gases now can prevent the worst outcomes. A prime target for gardeners is the elimination of gasoline-powered equipment like blowers, mowers, and trimmers. These small tools have highly inefficient engines that emit a lot of greenhouse gases as well as air pollutants (and a lot of noise, too). Switching to electric tools and vehicles, composting, adding solar power to houses and businesses, and conserving energy and water (which often uses energy to purify it) through carefully chosen plantings as well as through other methods can also help reduce future warming.
What about the new USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map?
I was surprised last week that the USDA had just produced an update to the 2012 map that I discussed last month. In that post, I noted that the 2012 map was already outdated due to the increasing temperatures we have seen in the 21st century. The new 2023 map uses data from 1991-2020, the current 30-year normal period, to identify the current plant hardiness zones for the United States. You can see the new map and zoom to your city at https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/. By comparing it to the 2012 map, you will see that more than half the country has increased by half a zone, which correlates to about a 5-degree F increase in the average lowest minimum temperature a location experiences each year. I asked USDA for a map that showed the changes of zone and was provided one by Chris Daly of the PRISM group that put together the 2023 map (below). Areas in tan experienced a half-zone change since the 2012 map. (There are a few areas in the Mountain West where the zones got colder, as shown in green, but these are mostly linked to new datasets that were available for the analysis rather than any changes to the local climate there.)
Science has made it clear that the earth’s climate is changing and that most of the warming we are experiencing is due to burning of fossil fuels. We must learn to adapt to these changes and make sure that all groups can be protected from the worst impacts of the more extreme weather we are likely to experience. But we can also make changes now to reduce those future impacts, and I know gardeners will be part of that solution.