Big picture look at climate change impact on US agriculture: Midwest at risk

December 12, 2018 by David Nutt, Cornell University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

A new Cornell University-led study shows that Midwest agriculture is increasingly vulnerable to climate change because of the region's reliance on growing rain-fed crops.

Ariel Ortiz-Bobea, assistant professor of applied economics and management, set out to assess the impact is having on in the United States. While previous studies have looked at the vulnerability of individual field , which make up one-third of the country's , researchers haven't addressed the whole scope of agricultural production, including livestock, at the national level.

"We're trying to get a big picture idea of what is going on," said Ortiz-Bobea. "The data captures every state's agriculture over the past 50 years. If you see in the aggregate data that something big is happening, this really captures massive processes that are affecting many people at the same time."

The resulting paper, "Growing Climatic Sensitivity of U.S. Agriculture Linked to Technological Change and Regional Specialization" published in Science Advances, pinpoints the specific regions in the U.S. that are growing more sensitive to extreme shocks. The area of greatest concern is the Midwest, where rain-fed field crops like corn and soybeans have become increasingly vulnerable to warmer summers.

To get this panoramic snapshot, Ortiz-Bobea and his team used state-level measures of agricultural productivity that capture how inputs—such as seeds, feed, fertilizer, equipment and herbicides—are converted into economic outputs. The researchers mapped that information against nearly 50 years' worth of climate data from 1960 through 2004, essentially seeing what would happen if weather was treated as an additional input.

The results show a clear escalation in climate sensitivity in the Midwest between two distinct time periods. In the 1960s and '70s, a 2-degree Celsius rise in temperature during the summer resulted in an 11 percent drop in productivity. After the 1983, however, the same rise in temperature caused productivity to drop 29 percent.

While these damaging summer conditions usually only occur six percent of the time, the researchers indicate that an additional 1-degree Celsius warming would more than quadruple their frequency to roughly one of every four years.

"Losing almost half your profit every four years? That's a big loss," said Ortiz-Bobea, a fellow at Cornell's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

One of the reasons the Midwest is growing more vulnerable to drastic climate variations is because its agriculture industry is increasingly specialized in crop production, like nonirrigated cereal and oilseed crops.

"Specialization in crop production is a compounding factor," said Ortiz-Bobea, who collaborated on the paper with Erwin Knippenberg, a Cornell doctoral student in applied economics and management, and Robert G. Chambers of the University of Maryland.

"Most of the agriculture in the Midwest is corn and soybeans. And that's even more true today than it was 40 years ago," Ortiz-Bobea said. "That has implications for the resilience to climate of that region, because they're basically putting all their eggs in one basket, and that basket is getting more sensitive."

Explore further: Climate change will cut cereal yields, model predicts—technological advances could offset those losses

More information: "Growing climatic sensitivity of U.S. agriculture linked to technological change and regional specialization" Science Advances (2018). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aat4343 ,

Related Stories

Climate change could increase arable land

May 24, 2018

Climate change could expand the agricultural feasibility of the global boreal region by 44 per cent by the end of the century, according to new research.

Recommended for you

Researchers engineer a tougher fiber

February 22, 2019

North Carolina State University researchers have developed a fiber that combines the elasticity of rubber with the strength of a metal, resulting in a tougher material that could be incorporated into soft robotics, packaging ...

A quantum magnet with a topological twist

February 22, 2019

Taking their name from an intricate Japanese basket pattern, kagome magnets are thought to have electronic properties that could be valuable for future quantum devices and applications. Theories predict that some electrons ...

Solving the jet/cocoon riddle of a gravitational wave event

February 22, 2019

An international research team including astronomers from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has combined radio telescopes from five continents to prove the existence of a narrow stream of material, ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (2) Dec 12, 2018
They should have gone back to the 1920s - 1930s when Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska turned into a dustbowl and forced the Okies to sell their lands and move to California.
So, are they saying that Oklahoma will become a dustbowl again?
1 / 5 (1) Dec 13, 2018
Well, climate change does not exist and it is a scam invented by the Chinese climate scientists to somehow scam the American Trump voter... so why bother?

Time they got a taste of their own medicine. I'm not sorry at all.

5 / 5 (1) Dec 14, 2018
Oh enri, I thought segue was the class idiot. But you have knocked him off his corner stool & stolen his dunce cap!

Perhaps you might reconsider the ridiculous contradiction of your comment?

If Climate Change is non-existent & a fraud?
How could you blame the Chinese for events you deny?

I know you altright fairytails are deficit of intellectual competency but really...

The segue is such a low bar. Crawling under him for expressing your politically correct, ideological cant? Just makes you both look perverted.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.