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Should Iowa Farmers Start Adapting to a Warming Climate?

July 29, 2009

AMES, Iowa - It looks like Iowa farmers will have to adapt in order to avoid crop failures resulting from climate change in coming years, according to a new report compiled by local, regional and federal scientists and climatologists.

Professor Gene Takle directs the Climate Science Initiative, part of Iowa State University's Agronomy Department. He says the "Corn and Climate Report" raises some perplexing issues. Although summers have actually been on the cool side in recent years, with a period of especially favorable weather in the Midwest right now, farmers should be cautious about getting too comfortable.

Tackle says, looking out 50 to 75 years, a warming climate could negatively impact crop development. He adds, however, that clean energy opportunities could help Iowa farmers protect their livelihoods while helping reduce the environmental damage from greenhouse gas emissions.

"In the long-term, the projections are that greenhouse gas, as it continues to rise, will continue to lead to warming. But it has both positive and negative factors for Midwest agriculture, because we're part of the solution, in terms of bio-renewable energy and wind power. So, there are some very positive things as we move forward, for agriculture."

Some critics maintain that climate warming is unproven, or that it cannot be attributed to human activity. Takle says it will take greater understanding of its long-term and short-term effects to provide better seasonal and multi-year projections for farmers. One area being studied is a positive impact on crops where there are high numbers of wind turbines, he says.

"I've been talking with our soybean specialists and corn specialists and, when I mention the kinds of things I see from climate perspective - in terms of the drying out the crops a little earlier in the morning and reducing the heat during the course of the day - they say, 'Hey, this sounds good.' So, it seems that turbines might be actually good for our crops, which would be a win-win situation."

Another finding in the report is an increased risk of atmospheric moisture from climate warming that could create 'gully-washers,' heavy downpours that lead to soil erosion and crop losses. The report concludes that, while a warmer climate may seem pleasant to those not involved in agriculture, the pests and weeds that typically thrive in the southern hardiness zones may begin migrating north. Here in the Corn Belt, where we depend on cold temperatures to kill them off, a warmer future could mean new threats to crops.

The Corn and Climate Report was compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Iowa State University, the Great Plains Institute and the U.S. Climate Change Science Program. Download it at www.gpisd.net.

David Law/Dick Layman, Public News Service - IA