For the first time in more than a decade, the official map of plant growing zones has changed — and it affects Long Island. The announcement provided one of the clearest examples yet of the difference between weather and climate — an essential understanding as we grapple with how we talk about global warming. Some significant portion of Americans are still inclined to believe that a period of a few days below freezing is proof enough that climate change is a hoax. Not so, and the updated plant hardiness map helps prove it.
Gardeners may be enthused about a longer growing season with fewer truly hard freezes. Winter sports enthusiasts might be less pleased. Here on the East End, the last time temperatures were cold enough long enough to make ice for ice boating at Mecox came about a decade ago. Since then, there has been a day or two of pond ice thick enough for skating only a few times a year. And, until a quick cold snap about a year ago, fig trees in some locations had survived several successive winters without protection. Winters are not the only time of the year that have been warmer: NASA announced that the summer of 2023 was the hottest since modern record-keeping began in 1880.
The new plant hardiness guideline for the East End helps illustrate the trend. In 2012, only Napeague and Montauk were in Zone 7b, that is, with an average winter low between 5 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Since then, the zone has expanded, with the colder Zone 7a retreating to small patches at higher elevations. The warmer-winter-average Zone 7b now extends from Orient on the North Fork to Cutchogue; on the South Fork, it has grown west and south, all the way from Montauk Point to the Shinnecock Reservation. Zone 7b has also spread across Long Island, now encompassing most of Nassau and Suffolk. The Plant Hardiness Zone Map can be found at USDA.gov.
The timing of the new map comes as New York officials are celebrating the completion of the first electric turbine at the South Fork Wind installation out in the ocean past Block Island and roughly half the distance from Montauk to Martha's Vineyard. A much-disputed cable carrying electricity from the wind farm to the grid in East Hampton has already been laid. The project is part of a national strategy to shift away from fossil-fuel-power generation in favor of less harmful alternatives, including wind and solar.
A seemingly paradoxical aspect of climate shifts is the potential for nutritional declines in the food we eat. More sunlight can increase the growth rate of a crop such as wheat, but at a cost. As greater sunshine accelerates how fast a crop matures, yields actually can go down. Exacerbating the global food risk is an expectation that the worldwide production of corn will contract as the planet heats up.
So, yes, fresh, locally grown figs will surely be a treat increasingly enjoyed in the years ahead, but that is not necessarily a good thing when seen in the context of what is happening now around the world.