Heat waves emphasize need for retooled climate research

A major heat wave and drought has sent world grain prices skyrocketing for a second of three summers suggesting it is time to address supply through repurposed climate research.

Tackling high food prices among the leading G20 nations has so far bent on fixing demand issues, including grain trading, export bans and the role of biofuels in consuming corn.

Strangely absent is a concerted focus on the role of more frequent severe droughts in constricting supply.

That new focus could include a shift from a tiresome debate about human attribution in global warming, all but proven, to pinpointing local and regional impacts, plus turbocharged plant breeding to shorten a decades-long path to market.

Two heat waves illustrate the threat.

The Russian drought and wildfires in 2010 saw temperatures more than three standard deviations beyond historical data, in general exceeding 99.9 per cent of observations, according to a vivid paper by NASA scientist James Hansen last year.

A price spike followed when the country banned wheat exports.

The present U.S. Midwest event has been equally intense and sent corn prices soaring. A Texan heat wave in 2011 was also beyond third standard deviations, but more local.

Clearly, it is impossible to predict an extreme event at any given location in any year.

But NASA’s Hansen showed how average summer temperatures were one standard deviation higher globally in the last decade compared with 1951-61, in a consistent trend towards higher summer mean temperatures and more frequent extremes.

Events

The Russian summer in 2010 was the hottest in 130 years of records, and July rainfall in western Russia as little as four per cent of the monthly norm, according to the U.S.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

More than 20 per cent of the country’s harvest was destroyed, and economic losses from lost crops and wildfires amounted to $15 billion, it said in its 2010 “State of the Climate” report.

The cause was the same stable, high-pressure blocking system which had caused previous heat waves, bringing hot air from central Asia.

It was the severity of the heat wave, not the weather pattern, that was exceptional.

Texas last year endured its driest ever summer, with just 62 millimetres precipitation compared with the previous driest summer in 1956 of 88.4 mm.

This year, U.S. crops have withered in the worst drought since 1956. The January-June period was the warmest on record across the United States, where scorching temperatures have broken scores of individual station records.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this month cut expected corn yields by 12 per cent, and FAO revised its expected global cereals harvest.

Entrenched minority

Part of the problem is climate research which still dwells on attribution in a largely settled debate which long ago ran into the sand with an entrenched minority refusing to believe.

Farmers need specific regional and local information about possible projected temperature ranges, in the day and night, given the specific survival thresholds for individual crops.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) earlier this year seemed to take a step in the right direction, in its report “Managing the risks of extreme events,” which largely sidestepped attribution, focusing on the problem.

But it wrote in sweeping terms and strangely missed impacts on food production, spending just two out of 594 pages dealing with food security, with no link to agronomic research.

The IPCC’s main mandate is to publish a blockbuster report once every six years, split three ways between documenting the physical understanding of climate change, including cause, and a third each spent considering impacts and a human response.

Such an encyclopedia is worthwhile but a luxury when so little is understood about systemic food risks.

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