Rising temperatures in the Midwest are projected to be the largest contributing factor to declines in U.S. agricultural productivity, with extreme heat wilting crops and posing a threat to livestock, according to a sweeping federal report on climate change released Friday.
Midwest farmers will be increasingly challenged by warmer, wetter and more humid conditions from climate change, which also will lead to greater incidence of crop disease and more pests and will diminish the quality of stored grain. During the growing season, temperatures are projected to climb more in the Midwest than in any other region of the U.S., the report says.
Without technological advances in agriculture, the onslaught of high-rainfall events and higher temperatures could reduce the Midwest agricultural economy to levels last seen during the economic downturn for farmers in the 1980s.
Overall, yields from major U.S crops are expected to fall, the reports says. To adapt to the rising temperatures, substantial investments will be required, which will in turn will hurt farmers’ bottom lines.
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These are some of the findings of the report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The 1,600-page report -- vetted by 13 government agencies and written collectively with the help of 300 scientists -- is perhaps the most authoritative and comprehensive statement on the risks of climate change, which has contributed to extreme weather that has cost the U.S. nearly $400 billion since 2015, the authors found.
According to the report, the threat to Midwestern agriculture is just one potential blow to the region.
Scientists say human activity is changing the planet’s climate faster than at any point time in modern civilization, heralding costly and, in some cases, life-threatening consequences in every region of the country. Though the monstrous 2017 hurricane season and wildfires in California in recent years may be some of the most visceral images of the devastation a changing climate can wreak, the subtle effects from increasingly unpredictable water availability, more frequent heavy rainfall and hotter weather in the Midwest are just as important, according to Jim Angel, Illinois’ state climatologist, who contributed to Friday’s report.
”Some of those things don’t grab headlines as much but are still significant,” Angel said. “We kind of got a taste of that in 2012 with the big drought that shook not only U.S. markets but world markets. Those kind of things should be a big concern by midcentury.”
Illinois, a leading producer of soybeans and hogs, ranks third among the states in exported agricultural commodities, with $8.2 billion worth of goods shipped to other countries. The state has become 1.2 degrees warmer and 10 to 15 percent wetter in the past century. Angel said farmers are trying to adapt by increasing drainage and planting cover crops that will protect against heavier rainfall and runoff that can cause soil erosion.
”The question is can they adapt fast enough,” Angel said.
Meanwhile, William Hohenstein, director of U.S. Department of Agriculture’s climate change program, said the federal government is helping farmers track drought conditions.
”We are working to advance the ... drought forecasting,” Hohenstein said. “USDA is also partnering with seed companies to develop new cultivars of crops that are more resilient to drought. To help improve soil health and conserve water, we are providing guidance through our Midwest Regional Climate Hub on conservation practices.”
The reports cites other impacts climate change could have on the Midwest.
Warmer air also can hold more moisture, leading to more frequent and severe storms, which would overwhelm aging stormwater systems across the region. Scientists estimate the annual cost of retrofitting urban stormwater systems will exceed $500 million for the Midwest by the end of the century.
Higher temperatures also are expected to lead to diminished air quality. Without policymakers taking steps to mitigate the issue, hotter weather, which is more conducive to smog creation, could result in as many as 550 premature deaths per year by 2050, according to the report.
Brian Urbaszewski, director of the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago’s environmental health program, said he fears that warming will extend the seasons in which we could see unhealthy levels of ozone. People with asthma and others who struggle with respiratory diseases, he said, will be the most vulnerable.
”This reinforces the need to cut down and get rid off of pollutants that form ozone,” Urbaszewski said. “The problem with global warming is that it makes it harder.”
Climate change, once a benign area of research, has become a polarizing and politicized issue in recent years, at times pitting scientists against politicians.
Friday’s report, the fourth National Climate Assessment, is the latest in a line of federal research into climate change. Mandated by the Global Change Research Act of 1990, it seeks to assess the environmental, economic, and health and safety consequences of climate change. It builds on a 2017 report in which federal scientists found “it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.”
The conclusions of Friday’s study directly contradict the views of President Donald Trump, an outspoken skeptic of climate change who has vowed to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, a global pact that aims to reduce greenhouse gases. On Wednesday, Trump tweeted about an incoming cold snap on the East Coast, saying: “Whatever happened to Global Warming?”
Under Trump, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scrubbed references to climate change from its website.
Environmental advocates and journalists questioned whether the Trump administration’s apparent distrust of climate science influenced the decision for NOAA to release the report the day after Thanksgiving, a day when newsrooms are thin and public interest is likely distracted by Black Friday deals. NOAA spokeswoman Monica Allen acknowledged the report was out “earlier than expected” but referred questions pertaining to the timing of its release and White House tampering to Mike Kuperberg, executive director for the U.S. Global Change Research Program.
”This report has not been altered or revised in any way to reflect with political considerations,” Allen said.
Kuperberg coud not be reached for comment.
Perhaps more consequential than the timing was the Trump administration’s decision to dissolve a federal advisory panel that sought to translate these national and regional findings to the state and local levels. The defunct panel, chaired by Richard Moss, an adjunct professor in the Department of Geographical Sciences at University of Maryland, was revived earlier this year when it received funding from the state of New York, Columbia University’s Earth Institute and the American Meteorological Society to complete its project. Their report will be released early next year.
Moss, a Deerfield native, argues that the information will be all-important to cities and states, which he said will be key to slowing climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions while also needing to design their communities to become resilient to the climate changes.
”It shows we can’t waste any more time,” Moss said. “We have to be reducing emissions to avoid the worst impacts in the future and then we have to get ready for what we can no longer avoid. Because we’ve already set in motion some pretty substantial changes.”