Talk with any group of farmers, and conversation will eventually turn to the weather.
That’s not just a convention of polite conversation. It’s a staple of discussion because farmers look to the skies for, well, everything. Even tiny fluctuations — too many consecutive days of rain, too little sun, an early freeze, the waters rising too much or too little — can make the difference between a bumper crop and a lackluster harvest.
So, really intensive weather–a tornado, a drought, torrential rains–can have devastating impacts on farming. And not just farming. Food is essential to life. Any disruption to food supply could have profound political ramifications.
Students of history may recall that groundswells of protest in France reached revolutionary proportions only when famine struck. More recently, the radical protests that overthrew regimes in the Middle East during the Arab Spring came to a head in part because Russia — the principal supplier for this food-insecure region– cut ag exports amid a poor harvest. In fact, as demographic historian Walter Scheidel points out, only crises like famine and revolution tend to reduce economic inequality.
We’re not revolutionary France or a vulnerable region like the Middle East. But the United States and those who depend on us for food stand exposed to the shocks that intensifying extreme weather could produce.
Here are some of the areas where we could see changes:
- Heat Waves.
The summer of 2019 witnessed the hottest weather on record. Even in normally moderate climates, like those of Western Europe, temperatures climbed into the high 90s.
We’re poised to get a lot more where that came from. Average temperatures year-round will climb five degrees by midcentury, and ten degrees by century’s end. The number of 90-degree days will increase by 20-30 days by midcentury; by 2100, the number of days with a heat index surpassing 105 will triple.
It won’t just get warmer; it will get drier in many parts of the country accustomed to more rainfall.
The two go together. As temperatures rise, rainfall patterns change. This heightens the frequency and severity of arid weather. In 2012, for example, areas of the Southwest suffered sustained droughts. The USDA declared this dry spell a natural disaster in over 2,000 counties – about 70% of the USA.
- Heavy Rains.
Weirdly, heavy rains are also a result of climate change. Warming temperatures redistribute precipitation, and tend to concentrate it in more intense pockets.
That means the wet will get wetter. For farmers along major river basins, like the Mississippi, this means flooding, and potentially billions of dollars of crop damage.
- Severe Storms.
Climate scientists have warned that the intensity of hurricanes will continue to grow as climate change impact rises. This will profoundly affect coastal agriculture.
This development is happening for a couple of interlocking reasons.
First, warming sea temperatures mean higher winds and greater rainfall carried by these storm systems. That much is simple physics.
Second, rising sea levels means more powerful storm surges and greater incidence of flooding.
Meteorological models are projecting a 45-87% increase in the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes — the most severe categories in the classification system.
So, it’s safe to say farmers will still be talking about the weather years from now.
What will change is that everyone else will be talking about the weather, too. After all, there will be a lot to discuss.