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Climate Change: What Experts Expect for the Upper Midwest
This article was first printed in the July/Aug 2009 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.
We’ve all read the headlines trumpeting the destructive potential of global warming, filled with phrases like melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and devastating tropical storms. But what is this going to mean to those of us farming in the Midwest over the coming decades, and what can we do now to meet these challenges?
The Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI), completed a 9-part seminar series in June 2009 titled “Bracing for Impact.” The University of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and other state agencies and institutions have pooled resources to present cutting-edge climate predictions. Their goal: to develop practical information that can guide all decision makers from government organizations to individuals.
The WICCI study focuses on Wisconsin, and while Dr. Christopher Kucharik, Assistant Professor of Agronomy at UW-Madison, is not familiar with any similar state projects elsewhere in the Midwest, he notes that WICCI’s findings can be applied across state lines, particularly in Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan and parts of Illinois.
The Timeframe of Global Climate Change
Jack Williams of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies put the timeframe into perspective. “You see curves of temperature rising over the century, and it seems pretty abstract, but it’s happening right here and right now. We are in the beginning of a ramp up, and things will be happening faster and faster. My three-year-old, Eliza, may see temperatures increase from 3.2 to 6.8 °F in her life time. That is more than temperatures have changed in the past 22,000 years since the last glacier.”
Another perspective comes from Dr. Sara Hotchkiss, Assistant Professor of Botany at UW-Madison who studies pollen in sediment cores from lakes for a peek at the past thousand years. She has compared sediments from the Medieval Warm Period (from 800 to 1200 A.D., when wine grapes were commonly grown in Britain) to the Little Ice Age (from 1400-1800, when all agriculture ceased in Iceland and Greenland). The temperature change that caused this shift was less than 2° F. “These were climate changes that were relatively mild compared to what we are looking at in the next 50 to 100 years,” Hotchkiss says.
Short-term Climate Change Expected in the Midwest
Kucharik anticipates that spring, winter and fall will be wetter, and summer may be a time of increasing drought. Rainfall events may decrease, especially in summer when rain will be delivered in heavy downpours followed by dry spells. The type of flooding that occurred in south central Wisconsin in June 2008 could well become more common. He added that increased heat can dry out the soil no matter how much rain we get. In winter, some of the current snow season will be replaced by freezing rain.
Some Good News
Paradoxically, fewer days over 100 degrees
Increased organic matter in soil
The Bad News
More livestock mortality
Weeds increase in growth and variety
New insect and disease pests
Increase in humidity stress
More deer damage
Dramatic change in forest type
Guidelines for Survival
Some of the growing season conditions worth keeping records on would include:
Organic farmers may be in a strong position to contend with climate change. Takle noted, “Organic and natural systems have a way of working with the situation, and locally-adapted strains of particular crops might have more local adaptability.”
On the other hand, James Nienhuis, Professor of Horticulture at UW-Madison, advises farmers to identify cultivars that are better adapted to the new environment. “Farmers will have to be aware that the traditional cultivars they have grown are adapted to an environment that existed 20 years ago,” he says. “They may have to shift to varieties that flower or mature at a different time or that germinate and grow under different conditions.”
Mladenoff, suggests getting seeds from southern, rather than northern suppliers. “Even southern strains of the same species may be better conditioned to our changing climate,” he says. Takle adds that we may need to look for southern strains that have more resistance to newly-arrived warm-weather pests.
The U.S. Climate Change Report recommends, “a continuation of the trend toward increased water use efficiency” to mitigate the impacts of climate change on water resources.
Kucharik says, “The best way is for farmers to keep track of how their particular plants have been responding through time, and what aspects are correlated with better or worse yields in relation to growing season conditions. In essence, farmers have the largest natural field experiment taking place each year; they have to hedge their bets and hope that the strains they plant mesh well with the season’s growing conditions. There is a lot to be gained if they know what seems to be working and what doesn’t over the long term.
Recordings of the WICCI Seminar Series presentations have been posted on the UW Biotech Auditorium website. http://www.biotech.wisc.edu/webcams/ and are currently being broadcast on Wisconsin Public Television.
Denise Thornton recently completed her MA in Journalism from UW-Madison and posts regularly on what she is doing and learning on her own 44 acres at http://digginginthedriftless.wordpress.com.Return to TOP