Climate forecasts shown to warn of crop failures

Jul 22, 2013
Rice and wheat crop failures can be forecast using climate and crop models in some cases, according to a new study. Above is a wheat field in Nebraska. Credit: USDA

Climate data can help predict some crop failures several months before harvest, according to a new study from an international team, including a research scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Scientists found that in about one-third of global cropland, temperature and soil moisture have strong relationships to the yield of wheat and rice at harvest. For those two key crops, a computer model could predict crop failures three months in advance for about 20 percent of global cropland, according to the study, published July 21 in Nature Climate Change.

"You can estimate ultimate yields according to the climatic condition several months before," said Molly Brown, with Goddard's Biospheric Sciences Laboratory. "From the spring conditions, the preexisting conditions, the pattern is set."

The scientists wanted to examine the reliability and timeliness of crop failure forecasts in order for governments, insurers and others to plan accordingly. The research team, led by Toshichika Iizumi with the National Institute for Agro-Environmental Sciences in Tsukuba, Japan, created and tested a new crop model, incorporating temperature and precipitation forecasts and satellite observations from 1983 to 2006. They then examined how well those data predicted the crop yield or crop failure that actually occurred at the end of each season. For example, by looking at the temperature and in June of a given year, they were hoping to predict the success of a corn harvest in August and September.

The team studied four crops – corn, soybeans, wheat and rice – but the model proved most useful for wheat and rice. Crop failures in regions of some major wheat and rice exporters, such as Australia and Uruguay, could be predicted several months in advance, according to the study. The model also forecasted some minor changes in crop yield, not just the devastating resulting from severe droughts or other .

"The impact of climate extremes – the kind of events that have a large impact on global production – is more predictable than smaller variations in climate, but even variations of 5 percent in yield were correctly simulated in the study for many parts of the globe," said Andy Challinor, a co-author of the study and a professor with the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.

Economic factors, including agricultural technology, fertilizer, seeds and irrigation infrastructure, are key to determining how much a farmer can grow, Brown said. A farmer with costly equipment and high-yielding varieties can efficiently plant seeds and grow more productive crops than a farmer planting low-yielding varieties, one seed at a time. Farmers in the United States, for example, can grow about 10 times more corn per acre than farmers in Zimbabwe.

But if economics set the bar for crop yield, other factors – including climate – can still cause variations that lead to good years and devastating years.

"We're trying to bound how much the weather matters. For particular crops in particular places it makes a huge difference, especially with wheat," Brown said. "This paper gives us the tools we need to understand the sources of variability outside of the economic sphere."

While climate's role in crop yields and failures may seem intuitive, it's difficult to demonstrate in part because of the overwhelming influence of social and economic factors, Brown said. But integrating climate and economic predictions can lead to a better understanding of crop yields and failures – especially in a changing climate.

This paper is an initial step in a much larger effort to allow farmers in poor countries to get better harvests in years with good growing conditions, and build resiliency for the other years, Brown said.

For example, if satellite data and climate models forecast a good season for rice before seeds are even planted, farmers or communities could get loans to invest in technologies to take advantage of the good weather, while insurers could keep insurance premiums low. If the forecast calls for a poor growing season, the loans would be smaller and insurance premiums larger. It could work as both a social safety net for agricultural communities, Brown said, as well as encourage communities and governments to invest in the infrastructure needed to take advantage of those good years.

"We can make a new framework that would allow much greater exploitation of satellite data and climate prediction models," she said. "If you knew you were going to have a good year, you could plan, you could give out loans, you could do other things to boost food production to be prepared for bad years."

Explore further: Biologist reels in data to predict snook production

More information: Nature Climate Change DOI: 10.1038/nclimate1945

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User comments : 10

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shavera
2.8 / 5 (11) Jul 22, 2013
Something that disappoints me about physorg these days is that only the climate change articles generate any discussion. Inevitably, there will be some denier troll rambling on about tnis one isolated data point that completely disproves climate change and then people correcting it and so on and so forth. Nothing of interest or use is generated in the meantime.
ekim
3.2 / 5 (9) Jul 22, 2013
The flaw of denialism is that it is a non-theory. It produces no useful predictions of future climate. Simply stating that current theories are wrong could mean cooling, no change or warming for totally separate reasons. Having a working theory gives us a guide for future actions.
Neinsense99
2.3 / 5 (15) Jul 23, 2013
Something that disappoints me about physorg these days is that only the climate change articles generate any discussion. Inevitably, there will be some denier troll rambling on about tnis one isolated data point that completely disproves climate change and then people correcting it and so on and so forth. Nothing of interest or use is generated in the meantime.

That is why the more educated and articulate posters here have started to use copy and paste responses. It just isn't worth the hassle wrestling in the mud and -- wait for it -- "turds" with trolls. Why create original commentaries in reply to such regurgitated tripe when there are better things to do with our abilities?
Neinsense99
1.9 / 5 (14) Jul 23, 2013
BTW, I found this chart on global warming and consensus thanks to a fellow real skeptic. http://www.upwort...en?c=bl3
Birger
3.4 / 5 (5) Jul 23, 2013
Returning to the original article:

"Crop failures in regions of some major wheat and rice exporters, {snip]... could be *predicted several months in advance*"
"This paper is an initial step in a much larger effort to allow farmers in poor countries to get better harvests in years with good growing conditions, and build resiliency for the other years, Brown said"

-Why would you be hostile to these efforts? Would you deny poor farmers a tool to save their livelihod just because some climate science is involved?
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (5) Jul 23, 2013
Would you deny poor farmers a tool to save their livelihod

This may be a boon or a curse. Certainly taking advance measures to mitigate expected bad crops is a good thing. Then again those playing the food stock market futures will have a hey-day with this.

Large farming combines can take measures against expected crop failures. Poor farmers cannot (at least not to a similar extent). So large combines will make a killing during 'bad' years while poor farmers will not benefit (due to low yields despite the high prices). And during expected good years poor farmers will not get as good a price.

So overall - I think those who can use the information (stock brokers, large investors, speculators, large farming organizations) will benefit while poor farmers will be even more disadvantaged.

ccr5Delta32
1.5 / 5 (8) Jul 23, 2013
@ antialias_physorg What a depressing piece of logic you present .But then! We're human and we're not really obliged to follow any specifically logical path and the universe can go suck it up .In the mean time the game is finance and should that change to patriotism or religion or maybe even to the survival of species the rules will change no doubt . We're supposed to be an intelligent species ,at least that's whats what we'd like to believe and your statement says that "We react .we are reactionary " I agree I wish I didn't. ,,,, Intelligent species or just another maggot turning from the light . One more Copernican revolution afoot or are we too smart for that
antigoracle
1.9 / 5 (13) Jul 23, 2013
Something that disappoints me about physorg these days is that only the climate change articles generate any discussion. Inevitably, there will be some denier troll rambling on about tnis one isolated data point that completely disproves climate change and then people correcting it and so on and so forth. Nothing of interest or use is generated in the meantime.

Oh boo..hoo.
Congratulations on your membership to the stupid club, I'm sure the AGW Alarmist cult welcomed you with open arms.
Read what you have written and then let someone explain to you why you are the troll in denial.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Jul 23, 2013
We're supposed to be an intelligent species

Problem is: Individuals make decisions - not the species (and the individuals who have the species' interests first and foremost at heart are a rather small number). Intelligence is an evolved trait to aid the individual.
So we shouldn't be too surprised that "species intelligence" means very little when it comes to global issues.

Empathy is more of a trait that could affect group-/world-wide issues. But then again: empathy only works with reagards to other humans - not the ecosphere as a whole (because it, too, is an evolved trait).
geokstr
1.8 / 5 (10) Jul 23, 2013
We're supposed to be an intelligent species

Problem is: Individuals make decisions - not the species (and the individuals who have the species' interests first and foremost at heart are a rather small number). Intelligence is an evolved trait to aid the individual.
So we shouldn't be too surprised that "species intelligence" means very little when it comes to global issues.

Those who rise to the top of the pyramid where they could make a positive difference never, repeat, never have the interests of the species at heart. It takes a special form of ruthlessness, a sociopathic narcissist, driven entirely by self-interest, to believe themselves so superior and want the power to control the species. They may claim they have others at heart, may even believe it themselves, but their actions to destroy their opposition prove the lie.

Take Obama for instance...

Which is why the constitution was written - to control those who would control everyone else.