A week after federal reports that 2014 was the warmest year on record, a new study looks at the impact of climate change on agriculture and the economy. As noted in the Des Moines Register, the report released by the Risky Business Project found that climate change “would hit Iowa’s economy the hardest among Midwestern states because of reduced crop yields. Iowa is the nation’s largest grower of corn. By the end of the century, “the state could face likely declines in its signature corn crop of 18 percent to 77 percent — a huge hit for a corn industry worth nearly $10 billion,” the report said. The farming impact would have a domino effect in Iowa because of its ties to manufacturing, insurance and other industries.”
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“Our research shows that under the “business as usual” scenario and assuming no significant adaptation by farmers, some states in the region, like Missouri and Illinois, face up to a 15% likely average yield loss in the next 5 to 25 years, and up to a 73% likely average yield loss by the end of the century. Assuming no adaptation, the region as a whole faces likely yield declines of up to 19% by mid-century and 63% by the end of the century.
Yet while the agricultural industry will clearly be affected by climate change, it is also probably the best equipped to manage these risks. Farmers have always adapted to changing weather and climate conditions, with adaptation and flexibility built into their business models. Armed with the right information, Midwest farmers can, and will, mitigate some of these impacts through double-and triple-cropping, seed modification, crop switching and other adaptive practices. In many cases, crop production will likely shift from the Midwest to the Upper Great Plains, Northwest, and Canada, helping to keep the U.S. and global food system well supplied. However, this shift could put individual Midwest farmers and farm communities at risk if production moves to cooler climates.
The projected increase in Midwest surface air temperatures won’t just affect the health of the region’s crops; it will also put the region’s residents at risk. Over the past 40 years, the Midwest experienced only 2.7 days on average over 95°F. If we stay on our current climate path, the average Midwest resident will likely experience an additional 7 to 26 days above 95°F each year by mid-century, and 20 to 75 additional extreme-heat days—potentially more than 2 additional months per year of extreme heat—by the end of the century. On the other hand, the region will also experience fewer winter days with temperatures below freezing.
But the real story in this region is the combined impact of heat and humidity, which we measure using the Humid Heat Stroke Index, or HHSI. The human body’s capacity to cool down in the hottest weather depends on our ability to sweat, and to have that sweat evaporate on our skin. Sweat keeps the skin temperature below 95°F, which is required for our core temperature to stay around 98.6°F. But if the outside temperature is a combination of very hot and very humid—if it reaches a HHSI of about 95°F—our sweat cannot evaporate, and our core body temperature can rise until we actually collapse from heat stroke. Even at an HHSI of 92°F, core body temperatures can get close to 104°F, which is the body’s absolute limit.”