Hot & Dry, Cold & Wet, or Both?

Critically hot and dry weather hit much of the country in 2012, including the Corn Belt. The East Coast endured floods from “superstorm” Sandy and received record snowfall in New England.

2012 marked the first year climate scientists described such events as part of a changing climate attributed to global warming. A warmer atmosphere both increases evaporation and holds more water. For parts of the world already susceptible to drought and heat, or to heavy storms, a warmer atmosphere can make those conditions occur more frequently and more severely.

I watched these dry conditions unfold in northeast Nebraska last year. The warm and dry 2011-12 winter, combined with an exceptionally warm and dry spring, resulted in no soil moisture at planting time. The hot and dry summer burned up most dryland corn. High night-time temperatures cut into seed-set and plant health for some crops and killed some feedlot cattle unable to cool off.

Irrigation barely kept up with corn and soybean water demand. Heavy pumping caused groundwater levels to drop, leaving some livestock wells and rural households without water. Lack of moisture through the fall and winter has not replenished surface soil moisture or those deep aquifers.

It’s obvious farmers and rural residents will have to deal with global warming and the climatic changes that will – and are – affecting them. The weather of 2012 represents not just “variability” that farmers and their technology have managed to endure over the past 50 years. It’s a shift to a “new normal” that demands changes in farming practices and farm policy.

Farm policy must encourage changes in practices – the way farmers conserve their soil and water, and the crops they plant. Subsidies that discourage diversity and innovation will make global warming impacts worse. Reduction of conservation incentives will make any weather extremes more likely to cause both immediate and long-term damage to soil and water quality. Failure to encourage carbon sequestration in the soil ignores agriculture’s greatest tool to reduce – or even reverse – atmospheric carbon levels.

Our new report, Banking on Carbon, describes policy options and farming practices that can affect farm resilience and atmospheric carbon levels. It’s due out next month.

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