Climate change: What might agriculture look like in 2100?
December 16, 2010
What might farming look like 90 years in the future, given some predictions of climate change?
According to a news release from Purdue University, Midwest farmers could be farming like southern U.S. farmers if future climate change projections are accurate.
But northern Colorado may not see that great of change, according to Nolan Doesken, the state climatologist at Colorado State University.
Otto Doering is a Purdue agricultural economist and the director of the Purdue Climate Change Research Center. He said farmers throughout the Corn Belt would face warmer average temperatures and precipitation extremes, likely leading them to shift to more climate-appropriate crops or management strategies.
One scenario, for example, predicts the climate in Indiana – Purdue is in West Lafayette, Ind. – by the year 2100 would be much like that of present-day Virginia in the winter and Oklahoma in the summer. Winter temperatures in Virginia average in the mid- to upper 40s, and summer days in Oklahoma regularly top 90 degrees. Currently, the monthly average temperature for Indiana ranges from 89 degrees to 16 degrees.
CSU’s Doesken said he’s seen research for Colorado.
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He said if there is a way to get a handle on climate change – if indeed there will be climate change – it’s to relate what is presently known, then develop models based on future probabilities, working backwards.
“In terms of temperature, the point of view seems to be that conditions in the Arkansas Valley of southern Colorado are going to move to the South Platte River of northern Colorado, which relates to warmer temperatures, obviously,” Doesken said. But, he added, in terms of precipitation, the futuristic models are uncertain.
“The general feeling is that north of here it will be wetter, while south of here it will be drier. We seem to be right in the middle. But what is not clear is the summer precipitation versus the winter precipitation, which is the optimal period we get our summer water supply,” Doesken said.
The Rocky Mountains play a major role in the region’s meteorology, so making any kind of long-range prediction, particularly in terms of precipitation, is a roll of the dice at best.
Climate is slowly changing, but progress on federal “cap-and-trade” legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to that change is at a standstill, Doering said. As the climate shifts, farmers will be confronted with major meteorological challenges, he added.
“Rainfall variability with a smaller number of storms over the growing season and more intense storms are things we’ll have to watch out for. It this develops – and I believe it will – if will affect us all,” Doering said.
Temperature change, he said, will result in warmer winters.
“That might mean pests wouldn’t be wiped out as much like on those days in January where it’s below zero and the cold permeates the ground. Another important concern with temperature as is relates to corn is pollination. What we’d like to have is a situation where it may be hot in the daytime but there’s a drop in nighttime temperatures, which facilitates pollination,” Doering said.
Even with any climate changes, the Midwest would continue to be the nation’s best corn-growing region and might actually need to increase production, Doering said. Climate projections suggest states on the western end of the Corn Belt – including Nebraska, Kansas and Texas – that rely on irrigation to boost productivity might drop corn production altogether if permanent drier conditions prevail.
“The sandhills of Nebraska, part of the Texas panhandle, and central and western Kansas are areas where corn production is, in a sense, on the fringe. In those places farmers are probably going to move to dryland sorghum, dryland wheat and other sorts of crops,” Doering said.
One possible benefit from warmer annual temperatures is the prospect of more farmers growing soybeans and winter wheat in the same crop year. “Double cropping,” as it is known, is practiced in Indiana mostly in southern counties because temperatures warm earlier in the spring and remain warm later into the fall.
“I think we’ll see more of the soybean-wheat double crop moving northward into Indiana, to the point where in 30 or 40 years we may see this kind of opportunity very viable for central Indiana,” Doering said.
Norm Dalsted is an agricultural economist at Colorado State University who looks at these types of predictions with some trepidation.
“We saw periods in the 1980s and even into the 1990s when we had abnormal precipitation. Who’s to say we won’t go back to that? And if we go the other way, there are already genetic modifications being made to develop varieties of corn that are resistant to warmer and drier conditions that would be appropriate for use in eastern Colorado,” Dalsted said.
Overall, Dalsted said he doesn’t expect production agriculture in Colorado to be impacted a great deal, noting double cropping is already in use in parts of western Kansas where some farmers plant soybeans as soon as the wheat crop is harvested. That could, if any of the predictions come true, move into eastern Colorado as farmers are able to plant some crops earlier in the year with warmer conditions and follow them with another crop later in the growing season.
“Double the risk, double the income. Bankers are just going to love to hear that,” Dalsted said with a laugh.