Doing Something About the Weather

Rebecca Ward, Assistant State Climatologist for the North Carolina Climate Office.

THE ABSENTEE GARDENERS

By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

Before we write off 2020 as a year to forget, I’d like to point out that it was a pretty good year for North Carolina gardeners. Beyond welcoming new gardeners who joined our ranks as stay-at-home orders turned our collective attention inward, I’ll remember 2020 as a gardening season that didn’t require me to stand endlessly hand-watering thirsty plants.

As a gardener, the weather is always on my list of things to worry about. Looking for expert advice I asked Rebecca Ward, assistant state climatologist for the North Carolina Climate Office, for her insights into what we might experience this year. I was surprised by what she told me: topping the list is that I actually can do something about the weather.

But first, I needed to understand that “climate” and “weather” aren’t the same thing. Rebecca explained, “Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get.”

Climate is described, in part, by comparing it to weather data collected in blocks of 30 years — called “Climate Normals.” So, when temperatures, or precipitation, have exceeded their “average,” climatologists are comparing it to an average of 30 years — but not just any 30 years. Weather forecasters established these blocks long ago. In 2021 we move into a new 30-year block based on data from 1991-2020.

I’m writing this in the final days of 2020 so the record isn’t yet complete, but it appears it’s been another warm year. Beginning with 2015, we have experienced record-breaking warm weather and 2020 will likely be added to this list.

Conditions in the Pacific Ocean direct much of the weather we experience in North Carolina. Changes in water temperatures create changes in the atmosphere, impacting the jet streams that swirl around our planet. The jet streams drive cooler and wetter or warmer and drier air patterns. It’s an endless cycle of wind and water.

We are entering a La Niña cycle, defined as below-normal sea temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. Typically, this pattern produces drier weather for us. It also tends to be a less stable pattern producing more “variable weather” — a phrase that sends chills down most gardeners’ spines.

If we experience drier weather this winter, groundwater levels may not recharge, potentially setting up conditions for a drier spring. That could tip us into drought conditions if spring rains don’t arrive. Drought conditions occur very unevenly, so what you experience may not occur in my garden.

Across our state, the NC Climate Office has 43 stations continuously gathering data. While that’s pretty great, ours is a big state leaving a lot of white space on the map between stations. Rebecca cautioned, “Drought can be very hard to monitor because local conditions vary so much. Things like topography, vegetation and pavement can influence how much rain is absorbed by the ground during a storm.”

Here’s the good news: We can actually do something about the weather. That’s because “weather” is what we experience and gardeners are great observers of the natural world. We can help fill in those gaps, providing a more detailed and accurate data about local conditions.

This year you might want to consider participating in CoCoRaHS, the Community Collective Rain, Hail and Snow Network. Begun in 1998, it collects data from thousands of volunteer observers who report precipitation at their location. This data helps forecasters develop more accurate weather predictions. I enjoy participating and while I may not be able to impact the outcome of the weather, I can help forecasters do their job. You can find out more at cocorahs.org.

Want more ideas? Check out SciStarter (scistarter.org) for citizen science projects — perhaps it could provide an outlet for your New Year’s resolution. Finally, we can do something about the weather.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2021!


Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: info@absentee-gardener.com

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