Are You Seeing Climate Creep in Your Region?

9/19/2012

By Ron Hall

They fly over in huge ragged V's. From a distance their dark silhouette against the early morning pink sky looks like migrating Canada geese. The absence of raucous honking quickly enough suggests they are cormorants (pictured right). Thirty years ago, I don't recall seeing any of these ugly fish eaters on Lake Erie's productive, shallow western basin. Now each summer tens of thousands of cormorants populate Lake Erie's small limestone islands near my home.

To me, at least, their appearance in such large numbers suggests climate creep caused by more than a decade of warmer-than-normal temperatures. Apparently, I'm not the only person sensing that flora and fauna are spreading from the historical ranges that we're familiar with in the blip of time of our modern green industry.

Recently, through Linkedin, I've followed a fascinating thread on the Ecological Landscaping Association (ELA) forum. It discusses the adaptation of warmer-season plants to regions farther north or of higher elevations.

Group member Michelle Rose, CPP, a master of horticulture science candidate, started the thread with a simple question: "Are you planting natives from warmer climate zones or continuing to plant the current native species in your area?" From there, other knowledgeable individuals responded with what they're seeing and experiencing.

More than a dozen ELA followers have expressed views on the subject so far. Most seem to agree that something significant is going on, at least in terms of the spread and adaptation of plants from warmer to cooler climates.

"Crape myrtles now thrive here," responded a veteran Philadelphia-area landscape pro. "30 years ago they would live here, but would die back to the root each winter. It is becoming harder and harder to tell what actually is a native anymore, seems our whole ecosystem here is completely out of whack."

A landscape company owner near Minneapolis/St. Paul adds: "Since moisture patterns can also be expected to change, I have heard that in the central US the shift will not only be northward but eastward as well. While the warm climate spreads north the drier climate will spread east. In other words, Minnesota's model of what to expect is not Iowa but the much drier Nebraska. But, plants (and ecotypes) adapted to Nebraska may also be adapted to its shorter summer day length; making their utility for Minnesota's landscapes problematic."

Weather and climates are incredibly complicated, and discussions relating to climage change, and especially man's role in it, can become contentious. 

Even so, as I walk my neighborhood and see the large patches of common bermudgrass,apparently taking advantage of this summer's record-breaking heat, spreading over much of my neighbors' front lawns, I can't help but wonder if palms and crepe myrtle (shown right) might someday be a common sight in our northern Ohio landscapes.

You may want to join the discussion by visiting the ELA website.

Ron Hall is editor-in-chief of Turf magazine and has been reporting on the green industry since 1984.