Iowa Climate Report: Weather Swings Will Increase

Iowa Climate Report: Weather Swings Will Increase

Farmers will face more wet springs and dry summers due to global climate change, Iowa weather scientists say.

Global climate change means Iowa can expect more years like 2013, when spring deluges of rain preceded a severe summer drought. Such patterns won't occur every year, but they are becoming more frequent and fit the predictions of climate-change models.

That's the conclusion of the "Iowa Climate Statement 2013: A Rising Challenge to Iowa Agriculture." The Iowa Climate Statement is a report released annually by a group of Iowa scientists studying the likely effects of climate change. This year's report was released October 18 at a press conference at Drake University in Des Moines. A total of 155 professors and climate researchers from 36 Iowa colleges and universities signed the document.

CHALLENGE TO AGRICULTURE: The "Iowa Climate Statement 2013" lays out the rising challenge to Iowa agriculture. The new report says, "Our climate has disrupted agriculture production profoundly the past two years and is projected to become even more harmful in coming decades as our climate continues to warm and change."

The annual report is funded by the Iowa Legislature, which passed legislation several years ago requiring a panel of Iowa climate experts to monitor weather patterns each year and issue an updated report at the end of the growing season.

New report looks at the effects of climate change on farming in Iowa

The "Iowa Climate Statement 2013" is subtitled "A Rising Challenge to Iowa Agriculture." That's important to note, say the authors of this year's report. The 2013 report outlines the effects of climate change on Iowa agriculture—particularly the swings in weather extremes. The report says extreme weather patterns caused by climate change affect farming, and updated farming and conservation practices are needed to prevent soil erosion and adjust to the new reality.

Gene Takle, director of Iowa State University's climate science program and one of the report's lead authors, says too many Americans believe there is serious dispute among scientists about whether climate change is real and whether it is caused by people. "In the scientific community we have debates on details," he says. "But there are very few scientists who are actively studying climate who deny the existence of the role of heat-trapping gases in raising our global average temperatures, and the fact that these heat-trapping gases are produced by humans."~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~

When the annual report was first released in 2011, a total of 44 Iowa scientists signed on, says Professor David Courard-Hauri, chairman of Drake University's environmental science and policy program. Last year's report was signed by 137 Iowa scientists, and this year's by 155 from 36 colleges and universities in Iowa.

Nearly all weather scientists and climatologists now agree climate change is real

"There is and will be a legitimate debate about how to balance the adaptation and mitigation options we have," says Courard-Hauri. "But we gain nothing if we act as if there is uncertainty where there is not or that there is significant division among scientists regarding the causes of climate change."

The point of putting together the Iowa Climate Change Statement each year and having scientists and climatologists review and sign it is to demonstrate to the public that nearly all serious scientists agree the trend is real and dangerous and that steps to cope with climate change must be taken, says Courard-Hauri. Scientists must counter arguments and misinformation floating around on the Internet and in the popular media that there is no solid evidence the Earth is warming. "The subject is complicated and hard to explain," he notes, "but critics make it sound simple."

Swings from one extreme to another have in recent years characterized Iowa's weather patterns

"It's easy to set up a straw-man argument to say, 'Oh, well climates always change, there have been changes in the past. This might just be natural,'" Courard-Hauri says. "And usually that argument gets played on the Internet as, 'Maybe scientists haven't thought about the fact that there have been natural changes in the past and maybe this is related.'"

"Of course, scientists have thought about the possibility," adds, Courard-Hauri, "but the evidence strongly suggests the climate is changing faster than could be expected to happen naturally."~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~

Takle says it's true that over the past decade, the global warming trend appears to have hit a pause. But he says that could be due to a temporary shift in ocean currents, and isn't likely to be permanent. The data clearly show a dramatic warming of the earth over the past 40 years, Takle says, and the recent pause has not persuaded many scientists from believing in the overall theory.

"Iowa Climate Statement 2013" focuses on effects of climate change on agriculture

The "Iowa Climate Statement 2013" report focuses on the effects of climate change on agriculture. Takle says some of these effects could be positive, such as lengthening of the growing season. But he says farmers need to take steps to prevent losses from the other effects, such as serious soil erosion caused when hard spring rains fall on land not covered by grasses or crops. And warm nights stress livestock, reducing weight gain.

"Swings from one extreme to the other have characterized Iowa's 2013 weather patterns," the Iowa Climate Statement says. "Iowa started this year under widespread drought that began in 2011 and persisted throughout 2012. But the spring of 2013 (March-May) was the wettest in 140 years of record-keeping, creating conditions that hampered timely planting of corn and soybean fields. During these months, 62 Iowa counties experienced storms and flooding severe enough to result in federal disaster declarations."

The report continues, "By mid-August, very dry conditions had returned to Iowa, subjecting much of the state's cropland to moderate drought. In a warming climate, wet years get dryer and hotter. The climate likely will continue to warm due to increasing emissions of heat-trapping gasses."

Climate change has become a real issue for Iowa, especially to get crops planted in spring

"The last couple years have underscored the fact that we are very vulnerable to weather conditions and extremes in Iowa," says Takle. He says some global warming effects, such as a longer growing season, could be positive for agriculture. But, he says farmers need to take steps to prevent losses from other effects, such as serious soil erosion caused when spring downpours hit land that's not covered by grasses or other plants. He says warm nights tend to stress livestock reducing their weight gain. A warmer climate also helps insect pests multiply.~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~

The last two years (2011 and 2012) were marked by heavy rains followed by drought that damaged Iowa crops and farmland. "This has become a real issue, particularly with regard to getting crops planted in spring," says Takle. "Iowa had 900,000 acres that weren't planted this year because of intense spring rains."

Farmers encouraged to update their management plans, to make land more resilient to extreme weather

As the climate continues to warm and change in coming decades, Takle projects even more harm will be done to Iowa's ag economy. He's encouraging farmers to update their management plans to make the land more resilient to extreme weather. "Practices that were installed 30 years ago need to be updated for the current climate we're experiencing with these heavy rains," he says.

The Iowa scientists who signed the statement are calling on USDA to update its policies to better protect the land. "We want to make sure we have, for farmers, something that's going to address the current and projected future situation," Takle says. He says it's imperative that the world reduce its dependence on fossil fuels because the rise of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere is at the root of the climate change problem.

To read the Iowa Climate Statement 2013: A rising challenge to Iowa agriculture"  and to see the names of the 155 Iowa scientists and climatologists who have reviewed and endorsed the statement, click here.

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