Garden with Success in a Changing Climate

As the effects of climate change become more evident, prepare for increasingly variable weather patterns with resilient garden plans.

Photo by Adobe Stock/Irina Fischer

Our planet is changing. Increased levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere and rising global mean temperatures will definitely bring changes for gardeners. However, in the short term, you can prepare for and manage these changes.

To adapt to climate change, you have to understand it. For gardeners, atmospheric CO2 levels and the global mean temperature, or the average of temperatures all over the globe, are the most relevant data. In the million years prior to the Industrial Revolution, the average level of atmospheric CO2 was 280 parts per million (ppm), as determined by ice core samples and marine sediment testing. CO2 levels climbed past 300 ppm in the early 20th century and continued to rise. When scientists at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii began recording levels of atmospheric CO2 in 1958, their readings averaged 315 ppm, with peaks about 4 ppm above average in May, and valleys about 4 ppm below average in November. By 2015, the average level of CO2 in our air reached 400 ppm. In 2019, the average was 415 ppm. So, there’s now roughly 50 percent more CO2 in our atmosphere than there was just 250 years ago.

CO2 levels in the deep past also fluctuated, and at times were much higher than the present day. Back in the Cambrian Period, for example, CO2 exceeded 4,000 ppm. Of course, the flora and fauna of that time were adapted to those conditions, and CO2 levels have never before changed as quickly as they are now.

Carbon dioxide is two oxygen atoms (the “dioxide” part) attached to a carbon atom. Molecules of carbon dioxide absorb energy from light rays and thus trap heat that would otherwise dissipate into space. A certain amount of atmospheric CO2 is necessary for life as we know it, but rapidly increasing levels of CO2 result in an equally rapid increase in the global mean temperature. Scientists project that the global mean temperature will rise by 3.6 to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2100.

Is It Really Getting Hot in Here?

In 2017, the global mean temperature was 58.6 degrees. This is about 1.8 degrees higher than the global mean temperature in 1880. For perspective, the highest recorded temperature on Earth was 134.1 degrees in July of 1913 in Death Valley, California. The lowest was -129 degrees in July of 1983 at the Vostok Ice Station in Antarctica. Gardening would be impossible at these extremes, but it’s straightforward at the global mean temperature.

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