Climate Corner: A look back at a record hot summer

Nov 13, 2021

Dr. Danesha Seth Carley

Picture this: It’s July, the sun is out, the grass is wilting, and the neighbor’s kids are gleefully running through a sprinkler right down the street. On this peaceful morning as I sit on my patio with a cold glass of lemonade in my hand, I watch my dog chasing a loud and clueless bumble bee (a Bombus griseocollis, or brown-belted bumble bee) through my vegetable and flower gardens.

I look back down at the dog, who is now panting heavily, curled up at my feet on the sunny patio. It isn’t just her romp through my garden that made her need a quick drink of water and a rest break. It is indeed hot. Really, really hot. No surprise; it is summer in the South. However, this July is actually really hotter than usual. Yes, July is typically the hottest month of the year, but this year, July out did itself. It, in fact, is LITERALLY the hottest month EVER recorded in human history.

As I sip my lemonade, I think about how badly my garden needs rain, and yet, in Harrisville, W.Va., where I grew up and where much of my family lives, it rained 11 days in May, 10 days in June, and to-date in July, they have already had 7 days of rain. In fact, with over 11 inches of rain in the last two months, my mother had to delay her tomato planting due to the “muddy soup” her garden had turned into. My tomato plants would love that rain, but it isn’t to happen for another few weeks.

Here in Raleigh, N.C., I planted my tomato plants in early April. Last winter, I only scraped my car windows twice, so I think the tomatoes will be safe. From cold at least. They are on their own for water, apparently.

There was a time I took the advice of the Old Timers and waited diligently to plant my carefully tended seedlings until “after Mother’s Day,” although where I live in North Carolina, the Farmer’s Almanac say I should plant on Good Friday, so I’m only a week or so early this year.

However, times, as they say, are a changin’. The climate (i.e. the weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period) is anyway. The extreme heat I am currently contemplating is a part of this new normal. As are the heavy rains that kept my mother complaining about her lack of gardening progress even now, in July. We don’t have it as badly as the Northwest right now, a fact I remind my dog of as she whines to go back in the air-conditioned house.

Many will remember summer 2021 for being a hot one. An historic heat wave just baked the Pacific Northwest in June, setting all-time highs in Portland, Ore., Seattle, Wash. and Lytton, British Columbia. In fact, the 121 F reading in Lytton was the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada. The event was heralded as a “1,000-year event” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It was the hottest June ever in the United States. And subsequently, the hottest July as well. Especially if you live in Death Valley, Calif. There, on more than one occasion in June, they came within striking distance of its own world record temperature of 134 degrees F from 1913, hitting 128 F. Talk about hot!

Wildfires were raging across the hot western U.S., with the Dixie Fire in California devastating town after town, burning nearly 1 million acres. Smoke from the wildfires in the United States and Canada traveled across all the way to the Midwest and Eastern Seaboard over much of the summer, and caused some of the most vivid and beautiful sunsets, but unfortunately, and more importantly, they are also negatively impacting air quality across vast swaths of the country.

As a Professor in Horticultural Science and a pollinator habitat expert, I fully appreciate the impact that these weather and climate events have not only on my tomatoes and other plants in my garden, but on a regional, and global scale. As the June months trend wetter, and the July months trend hotter, we will see more and more super storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, and heat waves.

The impacts will be felt not only by upscale California and Colorado communities, but also our very own rural communities in Ritchie, Roane, Wood … and other counties in West Virginia. I think about how our children will be impacted, but also our rich and unique wildlife, including, but not limited to the brown-belted bumble bees, painted lady butterflies, and the much-adored honey bees.

Personally, what hits home most to me is simply the new challenges gardeners will continue to face. However, as I sip my lemonade, contemplating the heat, the lazy dog at my feet, and the bees visiting my coneflowers, I think there may just be a silver lining. Think of how much I will save on lemons when I can grow my own lemon trees year-round right here in North Carolina! But then, there’s that water bill…


Dr. Danesha Seth Carley is a West Virginia native, author, director NSF Center for IPM / USDA, Director, Center of Excellence for Regulatory Science in Agriculture, Associate Professor, Dept. Horticultural Science NC State Univ.