Climate change factors affecting Ohio farms

By Matt Reese

While both a volcano and fervor-filled politician may be filled with copious quantities of hot air, the reality is that only one really has much impact on changing the climate. The climate is changing all of the time based on a number of different factors.

“Nature goes through cycles and it is constantly in motion. It is like riding a horse,” said Evelyn Browning-Garriss, a climatologist consultant who has studied everything from ice cores to Viking shipping routes to gain insight into climatic patterns. “If you don’t move with it you are going to fall off.”

Browing-Garriss, who authors the Browning Newsletter, said the climate is cyclical and the big picture changes in the climate that have been increasingly noticeable in recent years are relatively predictable and expected based upon historical patterns. The current cycle in the Atlantic is a 60- to 70-year cycle that took over in the mid-1990s, which is when more severe hurricanes started up. The increase in extreme weather events was not unexpected by Browning-Garriss.

“From the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s, the U.S. and Canada enjoyed a fairly benign climate combination of conditions in the Pacific and Atlantic. The current climate pattern favors a trend of a warmer Midwest, with more extreme rainfall patterns and a higher risk of dry weather, particularly in the western U.S,” she said. “This is part of a natural cycle we’ve kept track of from the 1500s. It has the Atlantic switching from warm to cold. The Gulf Stream, when it flows fast, makes the North Atlantic hot, and when the North Atlantic is hot, we have a lot more hurricanes and they carry a lot more moisture.”

According to Browning-Garriss, the cycles of climate are shaped by:

• How much solar radiation the earth receives from the sun;

• The patterns of where solar radiation falls or is reflected;

• And where the heat from solar radiation is stored (oceans and urban areas).

From there, events such as volcanoes, El Niños and La Niñas, and yes, the activities of mankind, impact the short-term climate, but only within the framework of the larger climate cycle that is taking place.

“If you have a large volcano, it can put ash into the atmosphere that can linger for years. Volcanoes can make a huge difference,” she said. “We had two volcanoes go off last year and they put up so much debris they disrupted the normal wind patterns. The wind patterns of the arctic became so strong they tracked the cold air to the north. It was not a surprise in the last year that we hadn’t seen weather like we have had in centuries, because the last time that happened was in the 1700s.”

The key is in understanding the natural cycles and how the other factors can influence the short-term weather.

“We are seeing natural climate change and we aren’t preparing for these cycles,” Browning-Garriss said. “We have hundreds of years to tell us these cycles are coming and what their affect is. Man needs to learn to adjust to these things instead of just making the situation worse.”

The past offers many clues about what to expect in the future.

“I had one of my clients complaining about three hurricanes coming by his house in a year. I said, ‘Why do you think it is called Cape Fear? Why do you think the Native Americans didn’t live there?’ We need to look at the past,” she said. “We have 100,000 years of weather data for Northern hemisphere. Back 1,000 years ago, the countryside was hotter than it is now. They grew grain and raised cattle in Greenland, and we’re starting to see that again.”

The natural factors that will be shaping this winter’s weather, and the weather of the 2013 growing season, include:

• The sun entering the active phase of the solar cycle;

• The eruption of a large volcano in Iceland that has distorted Artic winds and built upon climate-changing debris in the atmosphere from previous large volcanic eruptions and numerous small eruptions in recent years;

• An interruption of the warm El Nino conditions;

• A fast-flowing, warm Gulf Stream;

• A warming Indian Ocean;

• Cool water off the West Coast and the East Coast of the U.S., with warmer water off of East Asia and in the Artic.

Based upon all of this, the winter of 2013 looks to be wetter and cooler than average for Ohio, depending on the weakening El Niño. La Niñas lead to cooler, wetter weather patterns and El Niños lead to warmer, drier conditions. Watching the strength or weakness of these two weather factors provides a good clue about the following growing season.

“The conditions look like the winter is going to be much cooler and wetter than they were last year in Ohio. We have a warm El Niño struggling to evolve in the Pacific. Right now it doesn’t look like it is going to make it,” she said. “And if we don’t have a cold La Niña or a warm El Niño, we might have something farmers haven’t seen in a while called ‘normal weather.’ Now, with a hot Atlantic, there is a real risk of some real heat in the middle of the summer, but it looks like the winter and spring will be wetter so they can get a good start.”

With a proper understanding of the climate, she said that farmers can plan ahead for the weather changes that are coming.

“There are some of the long-term factors to look at so you can actually plan ahead, which can be a valuable thing for farmers. Most of your lifetime you have been used to a slow and cool Atlantic, and in 1995 it started to warm up for 40 years,” Browning-Garriss said. “The Gulf Stream and other tropical currents are flowing faster, heating the North Atlantic. The warm phase should do that for 15 or 20 more years. It usually creates hotter summers, more active hurricane seasons and colder winters in the Midwest, Great Lakes and eastern states and provinces. Rapid flows of the Gulf Stream can create a warmer Atlantic, which can create heat waves and ‘flash droughts’ in the Midwest and Great Plains.”

While the weather may continue to be more challenging for U.S. agriculture in the coming years, Browning-Garriss said that Ohio is a comparative winner in general, with more moderate extremes than much of the rest of the country. Nonetheless, farmers in Ohio should be prepared to maximize water resources and minimize heat stress for the next two decades. Food (and feed) prices will also likely remain high due to a greater likelihood of challenging crop production in the U.S. and around the world.

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  1. Matt,
    Great Article. Do you mind if i try to get our local paper (Circleville Herald) to print it in the paper?
    I say try, cause they don’t always print what i send them.
    I will give you credit. What is your title, or how would you like it printed?

    Thanks, Karen

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