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Latitudes and Currents

February 10, 2010
My house in snow - 2008 (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)
A snowy winter in Maine (2008 – definitely not 2010)
Recently, Nell at Secrets of a Seed Scatterer wrote about latitudes and how they shape our gardening experiences, and she asked us all if we knew the latitudes of our gardens.

My garden in East Poland, Maine is at latitude 44N, which means that I am just a bit closer to the equator than to the north pole. In the United States, the 44th parallel passes through the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Adirondack Mountains of New York, the Black Hills of South Dakota, and the southern edge of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. This latitude also includes Middlebury, Vermont; Oshkosh, Wisconsin; Rochester, Minnesota and Eugene, Oregon. My position at latitude 44N puts me north of Toronto but south of Montreal, north of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia but south of Halifax.

Moving outside North America, the 44th parallel runs just north of the French Riviera and through northern Tuscany, Bucharest, Belgrade, Alma Ata, and the far north of Japan.  Latitude 44 is a little south of Venice, Milan and Lyon, which are all at latitude 45N. It is considerably south of Paris, Munich and Vienna, and even further south of Krakow, Prague, Frankfort, Brussels, and anyplace in the UK.

The relative latitudes of places in New England and Europe often surprise people. Mainers find it hard to believe that so much of Europe is further north than we are, and Europeans are surprised by our harsh winters. Recently, Edith of Edith Hope’s Garden Journal expressed just this sentiment in a comment on my blog. “What amazes me,” she wrote, “even though I am used to the cold and snowy winters of Hungary, is the amount of snow combined with sub zero temperatures that you experience.” London gardener Roger Phillips expressed the same amazement in the correspondence with Maine gardener Leslie Land later published as The Three Thousand Mile Garden (Penguin Books, 1997). In December 1989, the first winter of their correspondence, Phillips wrote:

I am horrified at the temperatures in Cushing. It at last brings home to me why gardens in America are so different from ours…. The other thing I cannot get through my thick head is that you are over five hundred miles south of me – by my map you come out on the same latitude as the French Rivieras, and to boot you are near the sea. How can it be so cold? (The Three Thousand Mile Garden, p. 37)

The question was rhetorical. The answer, as Roger Phillips well knew, lay in the powerful influence on climate of ocean currents. New England owes it’s cold climate to the Labrador Current, which flows south from the Arctic Ocean, past Greenland, Labrador, and the Canadian Maritimes, and along the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Gulf Stream flows north from the Gulf of Mexico, bringing warm water to temper the climate of western Europe and the UK.

You can learn more about these and other ocean currents that influence climate by clicking here. It should give us all pause that some models of global warming predict the disruption of these ocean currents, with resulting dramatic changes to our climates and our gardens.

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. February 10, 2010 12:20 pm

    Jean, I have thought so before but now I am certain to your great wisdom! You have just presented a most thoughtful and enlightening post that answers so clearly questions I have been having of late about your very title. We forget so much we were once taught! I so appreciate your last sentence too. Pause indeed… and then get on the phone and call our representatives, wherever they are in the world demanding more green, clean energy! Thank you for a great post Jean! ;>) Carol

  2. February 10, 2010 12:50 pm

    Dear Jean, I found this absolutely fascinating. I had never before considered where the 44th Parallel ran to or from. I intend to investigate this topic further.

    Thank you so much for providing a link to my weblog. It is most thoughtful of you.

    Your house, sitting in so much snow, looks charming.

  3. February 10, 2010 2:38 pm

    Aha, I’m farther north than you! But our winter temps are a bit milder, since the mountains shield us from the arctic air that pours down from Canada into the midwest. We’ve got an inland climate that isn’t influenced much by ocean currents. Isn’t it interesting all the different circumstances we deal with as we garden?

  4. February 10, 2010 2:52 pm

    Those of us on the West Coast tend to be very familiar with the havoc that shifting and warming ocean currents can cause. This winter a number of us have been drenched in unrelenting rainfall courtesy of El Niño. The only solace is that our gardens should be that much happier as a result come spring!

  5. February 10, 2010 3:40 pm

    A most interesting post Jean. Here we are at latitude 53N . I must admit it’s been a good while since I’ve checked out how this relates to the rest of the world. Your post is prompting me to get the atlas out and refresh my memory. I really enjoyed ‘ The Three Thousand Mile Garden’.

  6. Elephant's Eye permalink
    February 10, 2010 3:59 pm

    That was fascinating. You answered questions I hadn’t even realised I would ask!

  7. February 10, 2010 4:16 pm

    This was really interesting . We are quite a bit north of Eugene, Oregon and we’ve had one of the mildest winters on record. I would’ve guessed we were south of you if I went by the type of weather we each have. Very good explanation.

  8. February 10, 2010 7:13 pm

    Hello Jean,

    I have always been fascinated about how ocean currents affect weather all over the world. We visited the UK in early March and it was interesting that it was not extremely cold. Growing up in Southern California, we experienced the influence of the ocean as well.

  9. February 10, 2010 11:34 pm

    Hi Jean. The 45th parallel is just north of Salem Oregon, about 25 miles north of Albany where I live. Eugene is about 40 miles to my south, 43.6 L. I know, close enough, right? LOL
    As I’m sure you know. The 45th parallel is halfway between the equator and north pole. My weather is, by and large, influenced by the Pacific Ocean. Mild winters, dry, warm summers with the occasional anomaly, LOL.

    I’m not sure if Nell posted this link or not but this is a helpful tool.

    Stay warm.

    • Jean permalink*
      February 11, 2010 3:56 pm

      Hello Everyone, It is interesting, isn’t it, to think about where we are located and how it affects our climate. I think I’ve come to the conclusion that latitude matters, but not anywhere near as much as we normally think it does.

      Catherine and Grace, your comparison of your pacific northwest climate with my New England climate really drives the point home.

      Edith and Anna, I think if you compare your latitude with similar latitudes in Canada and eastern Russia, you might be surprised. We’re talking here about Hudson’s Bay and the southern part of the Bering Sea.

      Grace, thanks for providing the link to the great map tool;I didn’t discover this one when I was preparing this post.

      Diana, I’m always happy to provide a learning experience. 🙂

      VW, Your comment provides a nice example of geographic features other than ocean currents that shape climate.

      Noelle, the California coast provides another interesting example of the influence of ocean currents. Apparently, the California current flows from north to south along the coast, cooling the climate — which I guess is why southern California is considerably cooler in summer than states in the southeast (whose climate is shaped by the same tropical Gulf stream that warms western Europe.

      Curbstone Valley, Your comment sent me scrambling to learn more about El Nino. It’s not a current like the ones I was focused on, a stable flow of warm or cool water; rather, it’s a periodic oscillation in the temperature of the tropical Pacific. But it really drives the point home about how important ocean temperatures are in shaping climate. It’s amazing to me that a variation of a few degrees in the tropical Pacific can create drought in Australia, heavy rain in California, blizzards in the mid-Atlantic, etc.

      So yes, Carol, I think you are absolutely right. All of this makes it very clear how seemingly small differences in ocean temperature can create large changes in climate, and we need to lean on our political leaders to take this seriously.

  10. February 12, 2010 4:06 am

    Very technical post. I went to the CIMAS link and it is very informative.

  11. February 12, 2010 7:58 am

    I’m at 41.45 latitude, which pretty much splits continental US in half. I’m north of Tokyo but share latitude with much of the Mediterranean Sea. Funny, now that I think about it I’ve spent my entire life near latitude 40, even though I’ve moved many times.

    Great, thought-provoking post, Jean.

  12. February 12, 2010 9:15 am

    An interesting post. One of the fascinations of blogging is seeing in real time gardens all over the world, and their different climates. A constant source of wonder and surprise, particularly the differences within the same country!

    • Jean permalink*
      February 12, 2010 8:29 pm

      Muhammad, I’m pleased that you found the CIMAS site so interesting. I suppose it’s because I work in a college myself, but I always gravitate toward information at university web sites, because I figure the people who wrote it are experts who really know what they’re talking about. That site will be even better when they get currents in some of the other oceans mapped.

      Joene, Like you, I’ve spent most of my life living in a fairly narrow latitude range. Except for a brief period in southern California after college, I’ve lived in almost all the New England states and mostly between latitudes 40N and 45N. I’m wondering, though, if what attracts us is the similar latitude or similar climate? I remember how much I missed the New England seasons when I lived in California; I think if I were to live in Europe, I’d be more attracted to the climate in England or Scotland or even Scandinavia than to the Mediterranean.

      EG, I couldn’t agree more; I love visiting gardens all over the world via blogs. I think it’s what makes Garden Bloggers Bloom Day such a hit — the idea that you can look at what’s going on in everyone’s garden, in real time, in so many different climates.

  13. Barry permalink
    February 12, 2010 8:53 pm

    Jean, I did enjoy this. Most Garden experts visiting from the UK and the US assume that everywhere in Canada is frigid in the winter ( and are surprised to hear that our summers are hot). I live in Toronto, as you say, south of you and comparatively balmy at Zone 6.

    Visited Portland Maine for the first time last summer and was smitten by your lovely town. Great architecture, friendly atmosphere and great food. And coffee!

  14. February 13, 2010 2:51 am

    Interesting stuff. That said, we have a slightly different take.

    Q: Why is it always cold, dull, wet and grey?

    A: It’s England!

  15. February 13, 2010 8:59 am

    I had to check~what a great idea. Nashville is located 36° 9′ 56″ N / 86° 47′ 3″ W Have a sweet weekend. gail

  16. February 13, 2010 10:55 am

    I enjoyed your thoughtful and stimulating post…helps my brain start to work a little;-) I tend not to use it like I used to…LOL

    My latitude: 38.6580556 –so now I am going to do a bit of reading so I can understand just what that means in terms of my garden climate. Not that it will help me be a better or ‘smarter’ gardener, but perhaps a more understanding (?)gardener…

    Hubby and son are currently in the car on their way to the great state of ME…going skiing at the loaf;-) I had planned to go along but wasn’t up for the 15+ hr drive this morning, and since I cannot ski (still wearing a knee brace from falling off a ladder 3 wks ago) and didn’t really feel like sitting for 2 days in the lodge, I decided to stay home. Two of my h.s. friends were going to meet me up there, but I told them I’ll see them this summer for our 35th hs class reunion!

    The other reason I wasn’t as excited about going right now is that we’ve had so much snow down here that going up to ME to see it is no longer a novelty for me! Plus, you guys barely have any, at the moment, at least. Or, is that just my overly-snow-crazed friends who don’t consider it as ‘having snow’ unless there are 3 to 4 feet of it on the ground at any given moment?!?! Some of them really are like that! Maybe I was once that way (in my hs days of skiing) but at this point in my life I think I’ve developed a bit of ‘southern blood’! Take care;-)

  17. February 13, 2010 3:47 pm

    Jean, thank you for your wise and informative posting. This is a question I’ve informed myself on only very recently, having just married an Eastern European whose home city is actually *north* of Maine, but who has trouble adjusting to the extremes of this continent, the heat of the South and the sub-zero temps up North.

    The changes in currents are one of the scariest predictions of the global climate change scientists studying the ongoing alterations. What many don’t seem to realize is that this single momentous change could render huge portions of arable land not only unsuitable for crops, but inhospitable to human beings.

    I can’t wait to watch your garden awaken from its snow-bound sleep. 🙂

    • Jean permalink*
      February 13, 2010 7:37 pm

      So many interesting comments! Thank you all.

      Barry, I often wonder how much misperceptions such as these are shaped by the ways that our maps flatten out the earth’s surface and treat political boundaries as hard edges. U.S. maps often show Maine just jutting out into space in the northeast, and generally show nothingness above the Great Lakes and the northern tier of states. When you look at those maps, it’s easy to miss the way that Quebec wraps around Maine or Ontario inserts itself alongside New York. And, even though I know that the northernmost tip of Maine doesn’t come anywhere near the 49th parallel that forms the border between the U.S. and Canada in the west, Maine just looks (and feels) further north.

      IG, This reminded me of my first introduction to England. As the plane prepared to land at Heathrow, the pilot said “Welcome to England, where it’s cold, wet, and gray.” Of course, by New England standards, England never gets really cold (although I do remember feeling uncomfortably chilled on a rainy June day in York with temperatures about 40F!).

      Gail, It is fun to check this out isn’t it. I can’t take credit for the idea; Nell started it.

      Jan, I think you made the right call in staying home. You have much more snow there than we have here! A really weird weather factoid from last week was that Philadelphia had twice as much snow in a week as Portland has had all winter so far. I’m kicking myself for not getting out to cross-country ski in January when we had 14″ of gorgeous fluff — but who would have predicted no snow after that for a month!! Almost all the snow has melted off my roof (something that doesn’t usually happen until late March), and in the Freeport area, where I went to do errands today, the ground is mostly bare. It is down around 20 degrees overnight, so I’m sure the ski areas are making snow like crazy; but it’s not the same as the real thing. Your summer class reunion sounds like a much better time to visit (assuming that we don’t have another cold, wet summer like last year!).

      Meredith, I share your concern about how hard it is to get people to grapple with the realities of climate change. When I saw a member of Congress on television a couple of days ago expounding on how the record snowfall in Washington and points south proved that global warming was just a crock (Rush Limbaugh was spouting this line, too), I just wanted to bang my head against the wall (or, maybe better, bang his head against the wall) and scream! It scares me that people who are so lacking in basic scientific literacy are making our public policy. Maybe we should have a basic science test you have to pass before you can run for Congress. Or a better system might be a standardized scientific literacy test that newly elected members have to take after the election, and if they don’t make the grade, they have to take a remedial course. We could call it “No Congressman Left Behind”!

      Okay, political rant over. My apologies to those who prefer their garden blogging without political commentary.

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