Thursday, February 7, 2013

Thirst Thursday: Weather and Why it Matters

Rain, sunshine, snow, and thunder. That was the forecast last week. Besides being just plain bizarre, this weird weather is indicative of something more sinister...and something that could also jeopardize our spring fruits and vegetables. Plants take their cues to grow, reproduce, and die from the surrounding environment. It's sort of how we take the signals of sunshine and heat to shed our heavy clothes and wear shorts, only a bit more integral to survival.

So all this variation in the weather, what's the big deal? Well, the amount of light, temperature, and level of rain or moisture serve as the signals telling plants what to do. Warmer and sunnier days reveal summer is only around the corner. More light means that plants can boost photosynthesis, producing more sugars, and ultimately putting that energy into making the seeds of the next generation...or as we like to put it - fruits (including vegetables like pea pods). Temperature is an important indicator for flowers to start blooming, as the emergence of bees and other pollinators would usually coincide with warmer weather. Yet, with the warm spells that happened last year in late February and early March, flowers bloomed and then froze when temperatures dipped again, sacrificing an entire season's worth of apricots (and many other tree fruits). Rain is also essential to stimulating plant growth (particularly deep roots), so intermittent precipitation can be detrimental. And when you put both temperature and precipitation failings together, and a lack of snowfall that helps groundwater recharge to supply the dry summer months, we're painting a pretty grim picture for correct timing of plant processes.
As you are probably starting to see, fluctuations in these factors also can affect just how much food a plant produces. Just like us, plants have difficulty adjusting to weather that fluctuates so wildly from one day to the next. One of the ways in which plant breeders and scientists are trying to deal with this new challenge is by using varieties of crops that better suit these new conditions. We currently grow only a small portion of the crop diversity we have available, and many of the wild relatives of our staple crops could provide the essential traits to withstand these substantial climatic shifts. This is not the complete answer to adapting our agriculture to a climate-changed planet - as we need to halt the change and address other environmental issues - but it could prove to be the one that keeps agriculture going.

So, while it's tempting to revel in unusually warm weather, and cursing the dips below freezing, consider the implications of abnormal weather patters beyond your immediate comfort. Perhaps not so comforting after all...

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