Autumn’s first frost is falling later. For farmers, the consequences are wide-ranging.
The frozen Potomac River. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)
Halloween has come and gone. The clocks have been set back. Every evening darkness falls just a little bit earlier.
But for much of Virginia, the first frost still remains elusive.
Over the past century, the average date of the first frost has been moving progressively backward throughout the commonwealth, today landing a week or more later than it did at the turn of the 20th century.
“This is one of the clearest signs of not only the changing climate but … its impact on our systems,” said Jeremy Hoffman, who as chief scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia conducts extensive research on climate change in Virginia. “It’s not just here, it’s everywhere.”
As global temperatures have warmed, largely due to the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, frost seasons have shrunk. The Fourth National Climate Assessment released by the Trump administration in 2018 reported that “the length of the frost-free season, from the last freeze in spring to the first freeze of autumn, has increased for all regions since the early 1900s.”
How the shifts have played out in different states with different geographic, ecological and topographic features varies. Data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show that between 1895 and 2016, the average date of the first fall frost moved back by 7.1 days in Virginia.
On the local level, the changes may be even starker. Estimates of how much the average date has changed vary depending on the time range used and how scientists fit a line to their data points, but in most Virginia cities, they show unmistakable upward trends. Looking at first frost dates between 1970 and 2016, Climate Central, a nonprofit staffed by scientists and journalists, calculated that on average, the first frost today is 5.9 days later in Lynchburg, 8.9 days later in Harrisonburg, 12.8 days later in Roanoke, 15 days later in Charlottesville and 18.5 days later in Richmond. While their data show Norfolk’s first frost occurring about six days earlier on average, Hoffman said that longer-range data going back to 1940 show the first frost moving back by about five days. Still, he cautioned, variation does occur: “Localized things like weather” can “work against that dominant signal in datasets like these.”
The implications of the shifts in the freezing season go beyond a few more days to enjoy warm weather, say scientists and policymakers. Perhaps most affected are farmers, whose livelihood is intimately tied to fluctuations in both short-term weather and long-term climate.
“Some things you can sort of manage around and some things you can’t,” said Wade Thomason, a professor of crop and soil environmental science at Virginia Tech and the state’s grain crops extension specialist.
For most farmers, the last frost of the year in the spring is the riskier of the season’s two endpoints, falling as it does when most plants are young and more vulnerable to temperature extremes. But ongoing changes in the first frost in the fall also have ripple effects.
“It can be a beneficial thing for some instances. We might get more grazing days for livestock operations in a year,” said Thomason. For some crops, like double-cropped soybeans that are planted following the harvest of another crop — typically a grain like wheat — “it can extend the season.”
Other effects are less immediately apparent. Many wheat farmers who typically plant in mid-October have begun to push back their planting dates to ensure plants don’t grow too quickly during the freezing months, making them susceptible to disease or falling over in the field. Specific types of forage rely on long periods of cool weather to thrive: in Northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, farmers have noticed that orchardgrass stands are only living for four to five years instead of the once-standard 10.
“For years now, we’ve heard from farmers that the stands don’t persist like they used to,” said Thomason. Research has shown that one factor contributing to less persistence is warmer nighttime temperatures, he added, but because most operations rely on cultivars developed decades ago, “we haven’t adapted orchard grass that thrives in a warmer climate.”
Other crops affected by longer warm seasons? Tree fruits and wine grapes.
“Virginia’s one of those places that we expect to get hotter and we also expect to get wetter,” said Benjamin Cook, a climate scientist with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies whose research includes the effects of climate change on vineyards. Neither of those conditions are necessarily good for high-quality wine prospects, he said. Furthermore, farmers working in these areas face special risks because of the long time to maturity of their crops.
“Those are parts of the agricultural world that adaptation eventually becomes a lot more challenging, because you can’t switch crops from year to year,” he said. “You have to make a bet on something and wait four years to see if it pays off.”
Regardless of their specialty, all farmers face another consequence of shorter freeze seasons: more weeds and more pests.
“With longer growing seasons, with these warmer winters, the populations of insects are increasing, the mortality is lower, they can produce more generations a year, and that potentially presents a problem for agriculture and plants in general,” said Cook.
Those effects can be seen on the ground, said Thomason: “Maybe 30 years ago, we could stop worrying about them in early October, and now it may be a week or 10 days later.”
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