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Olduvai III: Catacylsm
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Fruit Chaos Is Coming

Climate change is threatening to turn sublime summer stone fruits disgusting, or rob us of their pleasures entirely.

A peach with a lit wick where the stem would be, like a firecracker.
Illustration by Paul Spella / The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

Summer, to me, is all about stone fruit: dark-purple plums, peaches you can smell from three feet away. But last summer, I struggled to find peaches at the farmers’ markets in New York City. A freak deep freeze in February had taken them out across New York State and other parts of the Northeast, buds shriveling on the branch as temperatures plummeted below zero and a brutally cold, dry wind swept through the region.

The loss was severe. One farmer estimated that the Hudson Valley lost 90 percent of its stone fruit. Evan Lentz, a faculty member in the plant-science department at the University of Connecticut, told me his state lost 50 to 75 percent. Another freeze in the second half of May damaged lots of other crops, including strawberries and blueberries. In New Hampshire, apple growers who went to bed with orchards full of pink blossoms awoke to petals turning brown. Georgia, the iconic peach state, lost some 90 percent of last year’s crop—a Georgia summer without peaches, an unfathomable thing. An unusually warm winter robbed the trees of the period of cold they need to bloom in the spring. The buds that did emerge were, like the ones in the Northeast, killed by a cold snap in the early spring.

Fruit trees evolved to live in more stable conditions; they’re exquisitely well adapted to the rhythm of a usual year. But instead of reliable seasons, they’re getting weather chaos: Springtime, already somewhat of a wild-card season, “is getting more and more erratic,” Theodore DeJong, a fruit-tree physiologist at UC Davis, told me. As a result, trees’ sense of seasonality is scrambled. And instead of reliable peaches and plums, we’re getting fruit chaos. It may not happen every year, but it’s happening more frequently.

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