Erratic Weather Calls for Resilient Systems
Weather has always been the wild card in production plans. Yet, recent extremes suggest that weather is getting ever wilder, making management decisions harder and harder to peg. Amid all the volatility, some forecasters point with relative certainty to this prediction for the long term: Expect erratic events in weather to increase in the decades ahead. The slow warming of the atmosphere could well be a contributing factor.
The models predicting future trends in weather show that temperatures should continue to warm, says Doug Kluck, Central Region climate services director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “The northern states have been warming at a faster rate than places to the south.
“While it is cold this year in North Dakota and Minnesota,” he says, “it’s been warmer than normal in other areas much farther north. One day, week, month, season, or even a few years does not make a climate. So we all struggle with the idea of it being so cold in our town or backyard, yet we’re told the earth is warming. In fact, 2013 was the fourth warmest year on record worldwide. It is the broad perspective we need to keep in mind.”
The prediction for the future trend in precipitation is split along regional lines.
“Studies show that certain parts of the United States, such as the southwestern region, will get drier over a long period of time,” says Kluck. “Places to the north and to the east in the U.S. will get wetter. When it does rain, it will rain harder.”
These long-term trends, already under way, partially explain the erratic swings in weather that produced flooding in 2011 and drought in 2012.
“Some climate-prediction scenarios suggest that the drought of 2012 and the flooding of 2011 were part of long-range trends in climate and were going to happen whether humans were on the earth or not,” says Kluck. “What we don’t know is how much man-made climate change impacted both events.”
Present trends in atmospheric warming are setting the stage for similar events to continue.
The farmers and ranchers who ride out these wide swings in weather will be those who have built resilient production systems.
Healthy soil is the foundation of these systems. Soil with lots of organic matter conserves moisture in dry weather, helping crops withstand drought. The organic matter also helps soil absorb the pounding of heavy rains, which minimizes the rapid runoff contributing to flooding.
“Building soil aggregates is the key to soil health,” says Jay Fuhrer, district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Bismarck, North Dakota. “The aggregates put pore spaces back into the soil,” he says. “As a result, water infiltration improves, as does oxygen flow. This helps support a larger population of soil biology, which improves nutrient cycling, and creates more resilient soils for crop production.”
Crop diversity is critical to soil building, as well.
“When we have high diversity in crop rotations, we see high levels of soil biology,” says Fuhrer.
Minimizing soil disturbance and retaining crop residue on the surface also contribute to soil building.
Matching crops to regional weather trends can add resilience to a production system.
“Judging from weather changes occurring in your region, think about what crops your grandkids will need to be producing,” says Kluck. “If you want to be as resilient as possible, keep your options open. Be aware of the weather trends that are happening and experiment with ways to adapt.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website gives one- and two-week weather outlooks as well as one- and three-month outlooks. The site also provides a drought forecast, weather-hazard outlooks, and near-term storm-tracking information.