Midlands a 'battleground' for climate change

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Posted: Monday, February 4, 2013 12:00 am

Good riddance. That's about the nicest thing Nebraska farmer Keith Dittrich can say about 2012.

The year had started out promising.

The warmest spring on record allowed brothers Keith and John Dittrichs, who farm in northeast Nebraska's Madison and Antelope Counties, to get in their fields the earliest ever. But the rock-hard ground refused to take the seed.

April rains softened the earth, and the Dittrichs planted on time.

Then came back-to-back hailstorms and scorching drought as Nebraska headed into its hottest, driest year on record. A freak October windstorm capped off 2012, leveling corn curing in the Dittrichs' field.

“I guess it's just part of the new norm,” Keith Dittrich said.

Then he added: “'New norm' doesn't express fully enough my real concern for what is happening.”

The Earth is warming eight times faster under human influence than it typically has from the depth of an ice age to the middle of a warm epoch, according to a major federal report published in January.

The National Climate Assessment, released in draft form, says the resulting climate change will bring increasingly erratic weather to the midcontinent region, which includes Nebraska and Iowa. That's because the Midlands are caught between a northern and eastern U.S. that is becoming wetter, and a western and southern U.S. that is becoming warmer and drier.

“We sit in a kind of battleground,” said Gene Takle, a professor of agriculture meteorology at Iowa State University who helped author the report's chapter on agriculture. “That's why the extremes in this region likely will be exacerbated from what we've experienced.”

Takle is among the researchers in Lincoln today to explain the findings and hear from the public. The federally sponsored session at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is one of eight nationally, each serving a different region.

Don Wilhite, UNL professor of applied climate science, said the university sought the opportunity to serve as host for the Great Plains session. Wilhite credited the university's success in landing the meeting to its reputation in climate research. UNL is home to the National Drought Mitigation Center and High Plains Regional Climate Center.

On balance, agriculture has benefited from climate change over the past 40 years, Takle said. That trend should continue for the near future, he said.

Global warming has accounted for about one-third of improved yields in Iowa by lengthening the growing season and expanding the range where crops can be planted, Takle said. Farm management and technological advances also have improved yields.

Farmers should be able to weather challenges of the near future with their proven resiliency, according to Takle and the report project. But they added that technology, government policy and private financing may not be nimble enough to soften the worsening blows of climate change.

Irrigation was a crucial piece of technology to the Dittrichs pulling in a 2012 harvest.

“Amazingly above average wherever we could give the crops enough water” is how Keith Dittrich described last year's yields. “But below average if water was short, and disastrous on dry land production.”

By 2050, when the grandchildren of today's young farmers head to the fields, the effects of climate change will turn increasingly hostile, according to the report. The U.S. generates $300 billion in agriculture commodities and all will be vulnerable to climate change, according to the report.

Farming will not collapse. But if Takle had any advice for someone wanting to pass a farm on to future generations it would be to protect soil and its ability to hold water.

That's what Ben Steffen, a longtime southeast Nebraska farmer, and his family have been doing for three generations: no-till farming, cover crops, terraces.

“I was raised to consider the potential future impacts of what I'm doing here, to try to be good stewards,” Steffen said.

While Keith Dittrich is convinced of the science of climate change, Steffen wants to learn more.

“I don't know what the impact of climate change is on my place, but I'm accustomed to dealing with variability,” Steffen said.

Dittrich, co-chairman of the American Corn Growers, said the stakes have become too high for farmers not to engage on the topic of climate change.

“Farmers have always been skeptical of weathermen,” he said, “but it's in farmers' best interest to understand this and help move policy along.”

Already, extreme weather is affecting some yields, the report notes. High nighttime temperatures cut yields across the Corn Belt in 2010 and 2012. With the number of hot nights projected to increase in the decades ahead, disappointing yields will become more common, the report said.

“People need to realize how these pieces fit together,” said Jerry Hatfield, laboratory director for the USDA's National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, Iowa. Hatfield joined Takle as author of the agriculture chapter.

The crucial underlying problem is the outsized effect that a change in averages has on the resulting extremes — more hottest-ever days and nights, and wider and more frequent swings between extremely wet and extremely dry years, he said.

“We are going to see more extreme extremes. ... That's the wake-up call for agriculture.”

Contact the writer:

402-444-1102, nancy.gaarder@owh.com

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