The Planted Row: The climate is changing. Now what?

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Farm Forum

I don’t want to hear it.

You don’t want to hear it.

No one wants to hear it.

Yet, hear it we must: “The climate has changed, is changing, and humans have had a role in that,” Laura Edwards, SDSU Extension climate field specialist in Aberdeen, said on May 16.

It doesn’t get any simpler than that; though, I understand if it’s a little hard to swallow after last weekend’s freeze. However, one cold night does not a climate make.

Edwards’ statement isn’t a political opinion. It’s an opinion based on scientific observations. The good people at NASA have put together an excellent webpage at http://climate.nasa.gov/evidence outlining the evidence. The case is explained so simply that even I can understand it, so you should have no problem.

Based on ice core samples, in the last 400,000 years, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels never rose above 300 parts per million… that is, until sometime shortly after 1950. Today atmospheric CO2 levels are at 400 parts per million.

In the last 70 years, rising sea levels have swallowed 5 of the Solomon Islands. According to the NASA website, sea levels rose 6.7 inches in the last century, but the rate of sea level rise in the last decade is nearly double that of the last century. The sea level is expected to rise 1 to 4 feet by the year 2100. (I suppose my grandkids won’t have to travel all the way to Venice to ride in a gondola.)

Last weekend, NASA released data (http://go.nasa.gov/JKDFD2) showing that April 2016 was the hottest April on record. This marks seven straight record hottest months, and three consecutive months in which the record was broken by a record large margin. Given this trend, 2016 could be on track to become the warmest year on record. As was 2015. As was 2014 before that.

Edwards said that climate change in our area could mean an increase of 20 percent more precipitation than in the last 30-50 years. She said we will see increased flooding and wetter fields at planting and harvest. She also said we have been seeing warmer temperatures with the warmer weather generally concentrated in the winter.

According to the 2014 National Climate Assessment (http://1.usa.gov/1jBwgE4), warmer winter temperatures could mean that more pests and weeds will survive the winter. Overwintering crops like winter wheat could leave dormancy earlier and would then be susceptible to spring frosts. Increased high temps and heat waves could pose a challenge to livestock operations.

However, it’s not all bad news. Edwards said in our area, growing seasons will be longer, and with increased moisture there is a chance of higher yields.

So what do we do with this information?

The first step in solving a problem is recognizing it exists. So, the first thing we should do is stop denying that climate change is happening. There’s too much evidence for it.

The second thing we should do is get behind efforts to mitigate climate change because things can always get worse. While the scenario I described above doesn’t sound like the worst thing in the world for the Northern Plains, the picture isn’t so pretty for other parts of the country which will be facing massive droughts or flooding from rising sea levels. We’re all in this together, and it’s going to take everyone’s help to minimize the damage to our society. When the government signs treaties and makes rules to decrease the amount of greenhouse gases being released into our atmosphere, maybe we shouldn’t fight them tooth and nail. Maybe we should instead ask ourselves, “What can I do to help and still remain profitable?”

As it turns out, there are some things you can do right now. Edwards said that some experts say best management practices like conservation tillage and expanded crop rotations can not only help mitigate the extremes of climate change but also benefit soil health and your profit margin.

Here’s the bottom line: It seems that the climate is changing, and yet we still have to produce enough food to feed the world. Given these two realities, we are going to have to make some changes. We can’t keep doing things the same way we’ve always done. The sooner we figure out what changes we need to make and implement them, the better off everyone will be.