This Week’s Winter Storm Is Scary—but So Is the Heat Wave
Balmy days in February can cost us big down the road. Just ask a farmer.
An invisible diagonal line is transecting the country this week, dividing Americans into two extreme realities: in the West and northern Midwest, record cold, dangerous freezing rain, and heavy snowfall; in the Southeast and mid-Atlantic, a historic heat wave, sending mercury in Appalachia and even the nation’s capital rocketing toward 80 degrees in what’s historically been almost the heart of winter. (Back in 1990, the District of Columbia experienced its final freeze of the season on April 13.)
What’s a healthy response to this surreal weather week? While Western and Northern regions prepare for what could in fact be dangerous conditions, unseasonably warm weather often gets met with a shrug: Here in D.C., a handful of people may grumble about the eerie and even alienating effect of the city’s increasingly titular winters, but others often happily plan to make the most of a balmy day—have an early barbecue, make one dark remark about impending climate catastrophe, pass the beer.
The way these weather events are reported to the average news consumer, I suspect—and, specifically, the emphasis on temperature—contributes to the confusion about how to respond. “Washington, D.C., could approach 80 degrees Thursday,” is how the Post reported this news. “That would be just two days later than the city’s earliest 80-degree reading on record.”
That’s a wild statistic, but it’s also a morally neutral one. Early versus late aren’t existentially fraught terms. And if anything, “early” in the English language is associated with good things: “The early bird gets the worm.”
Agriculturally, however, a single record-setting temperature isn’t always the best way to measure the disruption that weird weather can bring; cumulative odd temperature matters too. This week’s heat wave, for example, will hit some of the country’s top states for agricultural production—including Texas, Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, and Georgia. And when it comes to some of the country’s most beloved crops—the iconic Georgia peach, for example—heat waves, even in February, can be tremendously disruptive.
Both peaches and blueberries, which are produced in abundance in the American South, depend on a certain number of what’s known as “chill hours” in winter to trigger fruit production in the spring and summer. For peaches, that means a certain number of hours below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. “Overall, chill hours are decreasing across most parts of the country, as temperatures increase,” University of Georgia agricultural climatologist Pam Knox told me by phone. “It’s hard to document exactly how much that is because there hasn’t been any real research that shows that.” She pointed me to a graph, however, for chill hours in Peach County, Georgia, showing both the historic average accumulation of chill hours over the winter season and the past two winters. This season, as of February 19, the total number of chill hours is 746, compared to a historical average of over 1,100.
“Chill hours are one of those niche climate variables that really only fruit producers are interested in,” Knox acknowledged. But they can really throw a wrench into agricultural timetables. “Most farmers will hedge by having more than one variety of peaches, some that respond to fewer chill hours and some that respond to more chill hours,” she said. “So for some peaches, 700 hours would be sufficient; for some other varieties they would need at least 1,000. More farmers now are leaning toward shorter,” she said, noting that “we would very seldom expect to match the historical average” at this point.
But even then, a heat wave can screw things up, whether for peaches or for Georgia’s even more abundant crop of blueberries. “If you use something that has too few chill hours and they get their chill hours early,” Knox noted, “the plants are ready to go. We get some really warm weather for a few days and they pop, the blooms come out, and that makes them very vulnerable to a late frost,” which would kill the blooms. “Keep in mind,” she added, “that in most of Georgia the last average day of frost for the year is mid-March. Last year we had frost in April.”
There are things farmers can do to guard against this, she added, like covering trees or bushes with water ahead of a subsequent cold snap that freezes to keep the plants from getting too far below 32 degrees. They can also spray the trees with specialized chemicals. All of that costs money, though—one of many ways that climate change translates into higher food prices, even if few politicians are yet willing to treat the topic as the kitchen table issue it is.
Reporting not just record temperatures for a given month, but also chill hours, might be one way media coverage could help people understand the impact of unusual weather—although it would require investing in different types of data collection. Another way, and one less specific to fruit production and more easily understandable to nonfarmers who can still see the effects all around them, might be emphasizing the ever-earlier onset of spring, as measured by so-called “phenology,” i.e., when flowers bloom and birds start to nest. The USA National Phenology Network, Knox pointed out, measures this: “They update it every day, and it shows at least for Georgia that we’re at least two weeks ahead of normal conditions.”
Here in D.C., there is some awareness of phenology through the dating of the annual blossoming of ornamental cherry trees, which attracts tourists. This year, “the indicator tree,” WTOP reporter Megan Cloherty tweeted last week, “which usually blooms 2 weeks before the others on the National Mall, is budding. @NationalMallNPS says it’s not a question of [if] the trees will bloom early, it’s whether they’ll break a record.”
The New York Times has a surprisingly bullish report on sustainable aviation fuel, which remains costly and very rarely used. In addition to United Airlines leading the launch of a new $100 million venture capital fund for the technology this week, David Gelles reports, Boeing has pledged to double its use of sustainable fuel in 2023, and multiple startups are currently building new factors for fuel production. Gelles points out that United Airlines has, in a rare move, pledged to meet its zero-emissions goal by 2050 without relying on carbon offsets—offsets being something climate advocates, with good reason, increasingly regard as bogus. (Read more about that here.)
Four new proposed oil terminals off the Texas coast—one of which the Biden administration has already approved—could produce emissions equal to three times the entire United States’ annual current emissions, The Guardian reports.
Elsewhere in the Ecosystem
This Is What They Call “Essential for Life”
Climate journalist Emily Atkin points out an undercovered aspect of the disaster in East Palestine, Ohio: The toxic chemicals leaking from the derailed train were largely petrochemicals used to make PVC. Atkin circles back to an advertisement aired last year by petroleum refining company Valero:
In the commercial, we watch a new father imagining his infant daughter grow up. As she gets older, she’s surrounded by plastic products made from petrochemicals: crayons, lip gloss, a plastic drum set. The father beams with pride. The soothing voice returns. “Essential products,” she says. “Essential for life.”
The commercial is supposed to serve as an invitation for us to think about the wonderful things that can happen to a child because of plastics.
But when I watch it, all I can think about is the children in East Palestine, where the air was recently coated in the cancer-causing chemicals needed to make these plastics—the same ones we’re told are “essential for life.”
Read Emily Atkin’s newsletter at Heated.
This article first appeared in Apocalypse Soon, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.