Climate change is changing our own backyards
By Cara Fleischer
It has been a really warm fall in Tallahassee, and as much as I like the 75 degree days, it just feels wrong to have hydrangeas blooming and tomatoes still putting out fruit in December. Growing up here, I remember the drizzly wet-cold winters where I’d get chilled to the bone walking home from school, as well as a few intensely bright, clear days when the temperature would dive into the teens, freezing pipes, plants, and our fingers, surprisingly cold for Florida.
Since my family moved back to town about 10 years ago, winters feel different. Decorating for the holidays in shorts was something I did in St. Pete, not Tallahassee. But here I am, swatting mosquitoes off my bare legs while hanging Christmas lights. I only wore my warm boots twice last year, and heavy coats mostly hang in the closet.
At church, the old Japanese magnolia tree is covered in furry buds, which usually wait until February to pop out as an early sign of spring. Now that they have budded, they are sure to get zapped with our first freeze, and not bloom in spring like nature designed. I wonder what happens to the birds and insects that depend on those blooms as a food source, but come up empty.
I have been looking for the perfect specimen tree to add to my yard, ever since an old sweet gum decided to fall in a summer storm, taking out my gutter and coming inches from my roof, leaving a hole in my landscape. My heart was set on a dogwood tree because I grew up with them here in Tallahassee and have always admired their white, fluttery blooms in the springtime, their red berries that the birds enjoy, and their showy pink foliage in fall. I heard rumors that dogwood trees were dying out all over town and I shouldn’t plant them, but while I was at Native Nurseries perusing the tree section, I saw two small ones, and felt a glimmer of hope. I asked the woman making wreaths on the front porch of the store for advice, and she said what I heard was true—it’s now a gamble to plant dogwoods here for a variety of factors, all stemming back to our warming climate. They just aren’t happy living here anymore without colder winters, and their pests have become too abundant. She recommended that I plant a redbud instead. I left disappointed and treeless.
The fall drought has caused the small lake we live on to dry up, with only about a third of it left in the middle, where shorebirds can walk across while snagging fish in the shallow water. We hope for rain before the whole thing disappears and leaves us with a meadow until the next tropical storm rolls through town.
Adding up all these factors got me wondering if climate change impacts were already showing up here in Tallahassee, right in my own backyard? I called the experts at the UF/IFAS Extension Office to ask if they were seeing the signs too.
I spoke with Kelly Thomas, Program Assistant, who thought I was on to something. She was really surprised to hear that I still had tomatoes growing, although the late blooming hydrangeas weren’t that unusual. She agreed that it was about three months too early for the Japanese magnolias to bud, and added that she was also seeing some azaleas already in bloom.
When I asked her if climate change was causing our plants to go haywire, she said that research shows our Hardiness Zone here in Tallahassee is changing from an 8 to a 9 because of rising temperatures, putting us on the same level as central Florida. A quick check to the Arbor Day website showed that from 1990 – 2015, Zone 9 had crept up the state and covered North Florida, except for a few pockets. This means that some iconic north Florida trees, like my favorite dogwoods, will die out, and citrus and tropical plants will be easier to grow. It would be wise to take the new zone into account before we plant any new trees in our yards. She also said that with warmer weather, it is expected that bugs will breed faster and become more resistant to pesticides. This could mean big problems for other trees and plants down the road, as well as the health risk of Lyme disease from ticks and Zika virus from mosquitoes.
Thomas suggested that if your Japanese magnolias have already budded, you can try covering them during freezing temperatures in hopes that they will still get a chance to bloom later on. She also recommended that we pay attention to what is going on in our yards, do research, and talk to our elders about what is normal. Climate change is expected to bring unusually hot and cold temperature swings, extreme weather from droughts to downpours, and stronger hurricanes, which will all have an impact on the natural world around us.
In the face of all these changes, I’m encouraged to know that seven Florida representatives are members of the Climate Solutions Caucus. I hope after this warm winter, they’ll return to Congress in 2018 ready to enact serious climate legislation—because climate change is already affecting us here in Tallahassee, right in our own backyards.