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USDA releases GIS-based Plant Hardiness Zone map

US: A warming trend is evidenced in the new version of the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Plant Hardiness Zone Map, its first update since 1990. It is jointly developed by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Oregon State University‘s (OSU) PRISM Climate Group. It is available online at www.planthardiness.ars.usda.gov. 
For the first time, the map is available as an interactive GIS-based map, for which a broadband Internet connection is recommended, and as static images for those with slower Internet access. Users may also simply type in a ZIP Code and find the hardiness zone for that area.
The new version of the map includes 13 zones, with the addition for the first time of zones 12 (50-60 degrees Fahrenheit) and 13 (60-70 degrees Fahrenheit). Each zone is a 10-degree Fahrenheit band, further divided into 5-degree Fahrenheit zones “A” and “B.”
To help develop the new map, USDA and OSU requested that horticultural and climatic experts review the zones in their geographic area and trial versions of the new map were revised based on their expert input.
Compared to the 1990 version, zone boundaries in this edition of the map have shifted in many areas. The new map is generally one 5-degree Fahrenheit half-zone warmer than the previous map throughout much of the United States. This is mostly a result of using temperature data from a longer and more recent time period; the new map uses data measured at weather stations during the 30-year period 1976-2005. In contrast, the 1990 map was based on temperature data from only a 13-year period of 1974-1986.
However, some of the changes in the zones are a result of new, more sophisticated methods for mapping zones between weather stations. These include algorithms that considered for the first time such factors as changes in elevation, nearness to large bodies of water, and position on the terrain, such as valley bottoms and ridge tops. Also, the new map used temperature data from many more stations than did the 1990 map. These advances greatly improved the accuracy and detail of the map, especially in mountainous regions of the western US. In some cases, they resulted in changes to cooler, rather than warmer, zones.
While about 80 million American gardeners, as well as those who grow and breed plants, are the largest users of the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, many others need this hardiness zone information. For example, the USDA Risk Management Agency uses the USDA plant hardiness zone designations to set some crop insurance standards. Scientists use the plant hardiness zones as a data layer in many research models such as modelling the spread of exotic weeds and insects.
The 2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location. The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree F zones.
Source: easterniowalife.com