Better understanding of climate risks, impacts to US agriculture through new report

A new report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture sheds light on how it is possible to better understand how agricultural systems are impacted by climate change through the use of as many as 20 indicators.

The need for such report stems from the fact that agricultural production is highly sensitive to weather and climate and this in turn affects when farmers and land managers plant seeds or harvest crops. These conditions also factor into decision-making, when people decide to make capital investments or plant trees in an agroforestry system.

The research team started with the scientific fact that climate change is underway. The team looked at U.S. agricultural system and examined the climate stresses. Through the report, the team outlines data that farmers and land managers can use to understand how climate change is affecting their operations, and, hopefully, guide the development of effective adaptation.

In the report, the authors outline how the changes taking place in agriculture affect the system that many people make their livelihoods from.

20 climate indicators, based on robust data

The climate indicators described in the report are arranged in five categories, including physical (extreme precipitation and nighttime air temperature), crop and livestock (animal heat stress and leaf wetness duration), biological (insect infestation in crops, crop pathogens), phenological (timing of budbreak in fruit trees, disease vectors in livestock) and socioeconomic (crop insurance payments, heat-related mortality of agricultural workers).

Research team chose these indicators based on the strength of their connection to climate change and availability of long-term data, which is needed to identify how impacts are changing over time and whether adaptive actions are having the desired effect.

Researchers opted to include nighttime air temperatures as opposed to general temperature because nighttime temperatures have a big effect on the way plants develop.

Some of the indicators have national data, while others are more regional. Heat stress on livestock, a huge issue for feedlot operators, will be of interest to farmers and ranchers in states including Colorado.

The crop insurance payment indicator offers insight on the repercussions of climate events.

The indicator covering weed range and intensity was also notable. As carbon dioxide concentrations increase, researchers are seeing extreme northern migrations and expanded ranges for weeds.