September 1, 2016

Illinois could see effects of climate change as soon as 2020

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University of Illinois professors Don Fullerton (left) and Julian Reif with a map used in their climate change research in November 2015.

Darrell Hoemann/Midwet Center For Investigative Reporting

University of Illinois professors Don Fullerton (left) and Julian Reif with a map used in their climate change research in November 2015.

With record corn and soybean yields projected for this harvest season, the climate has been pretty good to Illinois crops in recent years, providing the heat and humidity needed to help the plants prosper.

But July 2016 was the hottest month in recorded history, and, while short term yields are nice, not all farmers are worried about the long-term effects that climate change could bring to agriculture in Illinois.

“From a farmer perspective, to a certain extent, the climate has always changed,” Rodney Weinzierl president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association said.

But not in the way that is projected over the next century; an increase in temperature and a shift in rain patterns could mean a 15 percent yield loss in the next five to 25 years and up to a 73 average yield loss by the end of the next century if farming patterns don’t change significantly, University of Illinois finance professors Don Fullerton and Julian Reif laid out in a report released from the Institute of Government and Public Affairs last year.

The report says significant changes, including changes in precipitation and yield, could be noticeable as soon as 2020.

“I would stress that there is a lot of uncertainty behind all of these different predictions, so part of the difficulty is that it’s hard to know what is going to be the biggest effect,” Reif said.

State Climatologist Jim Angel projects that temperature changes could become more dramatic, if precipitation doesn’t maintain the high levels it’s been at in recent years. Summers also have been more humid, which is harder on livestock.

Angel also projects more mild winters will lead more weeds, insects and diseases to survive throughout the winter, leading to higher numbers that could lower yields and quality. Mild winters also hurt fruit crops in 2007 and 2012, when the plants emerged too early and were killed by a spring frost.

“Farmers ask me more questions about climate change than any other group,” Angel said in a recent statement.  “Climate change affects their bottom line, so they need to know about temperature and precipitation changes that will influence their operation.”

Lin Warfel, a farmer near Champaign, said he has already begun experiencing the changes with his crop growth and has started experimenting with different types of seeds.

But at the same time, he said, changes in weather are nothing new for farmers. Warfel said he has worked through 53 harvests of the climate changing and has always made adjustments to do what’s best for his crops.

“I have a sense that I know the possibilities, and there is nothing exotic about it,” he said.

Fullerton said he and Reif found these changes could cause problems for farmers mostly because the timing of the weather will shift.

“If temperatures change, and the climate is warming, I can adjust to that, very easily. I need to be prepared for a warm season and a cold season, so that’s just part of the process of being a farmer,” Warfel said.

But according to the report, even if the total rainfall stays the same, there will be downpours that cause flooding in the spring and droughts in the summer. Both of which would disrupt crop growth.

All of these issues contribute to expenses for farmers. And Illinois saw an out-of-pocket spending increase for farmers of almost $350 million on crop insurance pay outs, not including premiums, from 2000 to 2011, and Reif said the weather changes will only increase spending and premiums as there is more variance in crop output.

If the report is correct, farmers will either have to expect lower crop yields or adapt to a new way of farming with different crop patterns or planting drought resistant crops, Fullerton said. This could mean farmers having to plant at different times with drought resistant species or invigorating irrigation systems to help plants survive the warmer summer months.

That is what Warfel has been doing: researching and finding the best seeds for the changes in the weather he experiences every year.

Some of the actions he’s taking are visiting demonstration plots to see which genetics are working best, attending classes and lectures and researching the weather every morning.

The changes he’s made so far are drought resistant corn seeds and soybean seeds that take the maximum advantage of sunlight and can survive in cooler soil. Warfel said he can now plant his soybeans earlier, which allows for more growth time and generally higher yields.

Weinzierl explained that adjusting to climate change will be easier for Illinois’ annual farmers because they can choose different seeds each year based on the way different hybrids grew the year before. Perennial farmers, who plant trees and fruits, will have a harder time because they only plant every couple years or even every 10 years.

Other problems that Warfel mentioned are disease and insects.

“If it’s warmer, we’ll have more problems with disease, plant diseases, and we’ll also have more insects. One of the things here in central Illinois that helps us is really cold winters that kills the disease organisms and also kills insects,” Warfel said. “So if it’s warmer in the winter, we won’t kill as many bugs, and we’ll have more plant diseases.”

The report also found that the increasing temperature could be a problem for the electricity infrastructure in the summer. Existing infrastructure is not built to handle the amount of energy required to supply that much air conditioning. When it reaches peak demand, it might fail and cause brownouts where whole portions of the state would get no electricity.

A heat wave in Chicago in 1995 caused approximately 750 deaths, according to the report. In a few years, Chicago will again likely experience between five to 20 days with heat and humidity conditions similar to this.