Brenda Cooper

Backing into Eden Chapter 12: Climate Whispering

Flower in our yardOur front yard is different than our back yard.  The front is sunny and bright and grows flowers and moss-free grass.  The back is partly shaded and often five degrees cooler. The two spaces have different micro-climates.  This isn’t new science. Thomas Jefferson understood it.  When he gardened at Monticello, he planted grapes on a sunny hillside that saw significant warmth for two months longer than many of his other lands.

A hollyhock planted by a wooden fence will grow differently if that fence is painted white than if the fence is painted brown.  In fact, it may burn against the white fence, since it will radiate more heat.  A stream creates a microclimate of damper air and soil, which encourages certain plants and animals to live near it.  Conversely, deforestation near a stream causes evaporation to increase, perhaps until the stream is no longer healthy or is gone entirely.

A primary premise of this series is that we’re going to have to do much of the work we used to be able to leave to nature.  Whether on city blocks, vertical farms, or in rolling hills, we must manage the garden of the earth actively.

This includes the climate.

 There is – of course – the macro discussion of climate change and carbon sequestration and big geoengineering.  I will write about those.  But there are also more subtle tools.  We can use our two hands, and perhaps small teams, to whisper to the climate directly around us.

The sunny hillside at Monticello occurred naturally, but microclimates can be created. Microclimate creation and management can help protect threatened species.  We might use it to  manage animal, bird, or even plant migration.  Microclimates could help us grow certain foods or protect existing crops, such as vineyards.

It’s probably safe.  Climate control on a scale that stops rain over a major city (as China did for the Olympics) may have large-scale unintended consequences.  But small-scale engineering work to use water, shade, color and selected plantings to manage micro-climates is unlikely to cause much harm.  We can selectively plant (or create) a slope so that it grows a certain kind of grape, mow a right-of-way so that a rare butterfly can eat, or channel a cooling breeze across a meadow so that a native flower thrives in spite of larger-scale climate fluctuations occurring nearby.  Microclimate is being studied as it relates to the burrows of turtles and the caves that bats hibernate in over cold winters.  It’s certainly been part of the farming and gardening conversation for years.

While researching this topic, I came across a fascinating company ,“Whole Systems Design,” which self-describes as “…an inter-disciplinary team of land planners, ecological designers, builders, and educators that live in their designs.   We unify conventionally disparate fields to develop resilient and regenerative places.”  Microclimates are one tool they work with.  They state, “Good design creates microclimates intentionally.”

SONY DSCWe’ll have knowledge.  Real-time data can be mapped , and big-data algorithms applied to a large amount of sensor data.  This will help us see what microclimates do, how to design them more effectively, and how they react to fluctuations in the larger climate around them.

We can use information to guide the creation and maintenance of habitats, including habitats for humans.  We do this now in a lot of energy intensive fashions (like the misters on outside patios in Arizona restaurants), but it can be done more subtly.

We already understand microclimates.  When I lived in California, I looked for houses with shade trees.  Here in the Pacific Northwest, I look for houses with un-shaded sunny places.

Innovative microclimate design can improve parks, wildlife preserves, and backyards.  This won’t affect the big pictures of climate change, but could very well ameliorate some of the effects, at least for a while.  It might buy time.

It’s not terribly difficult work for those armed with a bit of knowledge and a lot of real-time sensor data.  Add in some better AI, which is coming along as I write this, plentiful solar power which is doing the same (and can power sensors and networks to collect data), and all of us will be able to whisper to the climate in subtle ways.


Holly Jones’ own private microclimate, Indiana Green Living, Betsy Sheldon, March 4, 2013.

Jefferson’s Progressive Use of Microclimate, Monticello website blog, Benjamin Whitacre, July 22, 2013

Really worth poking around on…these people are doing interesting work in resilience.  Whole Systems Design website

An article at Huffpo that talks about microclimate management to save the Bay Checkerspot butterfly:  And the Butterflies Will Come, Huffpost Green, The Blog, Mary Ellen Hannibal, June 4, 2013

Take a look at this to get an idea of the complexity of microclimate management:  Vineyard Microclimates: What’s your ripening curve, Viticision, 2010

Ameliorating the effects of climate change:  Modifying microclimates through design, Robert D. Brown, March 201

For fun, and because the arts really do apply,  a poem about microclimates