An image of wheat, which is one of the many crops grown and cultivated in the Midwest. Photo Credit: Heather Kim/NPR.
As October came to a close, folks from all across the country found themselves visiting orchards and farmers’ markets. This is nothing new, as these places are commonly visited during the fall season. That being said, there are some parts of the country, such as central Illinois, where there are even corn festivals and late-night corn maze-runs which bring people from all walks of life together to celebrate the harvest. Given that maize, wheat, and other common crops all play such a vital role in the social and economic prosperity for those who live in places which have high maize production, it is slightly alarming to hear some of the most recent scientific reports on the potential negative impacts that climate change might have on the Midwest in the coming decades.
In a 2016 climate study by Hong et al, scientists modeled several climate runs with a varying degree of scenarios in and around the state of Iowa, including historic runs and long-term emissions that went out to mid-and-late century. In doing so, they were able to simulate air temperature and precipitation, along with carbon, water, and radiation flux, and their effects on crop growth and harvest yields. What was most striking about their findings was that crop yields tended to decrease in Iowa and surrounding states after 2050, assuming greenhouse gas emissions continue increasing on a global scale and at their current rates. The model runs also suggested that moisture stress in crops should be expected to increase as precipitation frequency will tend to decrease while its intensity may actually increase by mid-century. Increases in extreme heat events were also suggested by the runs, which also pose a serious threat to temperature-sensitive crops such as maize.
Focusing on just maize alone, that crop in particular does not appear as though it will experience any negative effects until around the latter half of the century. Nevertheless, all of the crops in this study experience some form of decline by late century. With regards to an increase in precipitation intensity, another recent study suggests yet another challenge for farmers in the Midwest. According to this 2018 study by Gensini and Brooks, extreme weather events, namely those which can spawn tornadoes, may be shifting east of what is commonly referred to as Tornado Alley. As the Great Plains dry out in the coming decades, the drylines that help to initiate supercell thunderstorms, which are capable of producing several severe weather threats, including large hail and tornadoes, may begin traveling further east and closer to the Mississippi River, especially by the turn of the century. Severe weather associated with supercells, such as large hail, damaging winds, flash flooding, and of course tornadoes, can cause heavy damages to crops such as corn. As such, the future posed by this study could result in much more negative and hazardous growing conditions in the region.
A corn field in rural west-central Kentucky just after dawn. Photo Credit: Gerardo Diaz/GWCC
Indeed, while this may be just a couple scientific studies, it should be noted that the climate system of the Midwest is fairly sensitive, and that as anthropogenic emissions continue to enter the atmosphere, it is crucial that more scientific studies are conducted to analyze how certain agricultural systems will be affected in the future. After all, food consumption is an incredibly important variable and its demand will only continue to rise in the coming decades as the world population continues to exponentially increase and our planet becomes warmer.
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© 2018 Meteorologist Gerardo Diaz
Xu, Hong, T.E. Twine, E. Girvetz, 2016. Climate Change and Maize Yield in Iowa. Public Library of Science, 11(5), doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0156083
Burkey, Marshall and K. Emerick, 2016. Adaptation to Climate Change: Evidence from US Agriculture. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 8(3), 106-49, doi: 10.1257/pol.20130025
Gensini, Vittorio and H.E. Brooks, 2018. Spatial trends in United States tornado frequency, 1(38), doi: 10.1038/s41612-018-0048-2
Urbana, IL, Sweet Corn Festival, https://urbanasweetcornfestival.com/
Dan Charles, 2018. 5 Major Crops in The Crosshairs of Climate Change, NPR, https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/10/25/658588158/5-major-crops-in-the-crosshairs-of-climate-change