Crop production linked to regional changes in climate


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Corn and soy plants can cool the climate on a regional level, but intensified conventional agriculture can harm water and soil quality. (Lana/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 14, 2018

A new study by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dartmouth College detail the way intensive agriculture has influenced precipitation and temperature patterns in the midwest.

During the second half of the 20th century, corn production in the midwest increased by 400 percent and soybean yields doubled due to more intensive agricultural practices. The study, which was published in Geophysical Research Letters, found that the midwest also saw significantly more precipitation and lower temperatures during the summer months over the same period of time. They concluded that the changes were not merely correlated, but that the land use change actually caused the regional climate changes.

The authors explain that each time plants take in carbon dioxide, they release moisture into the atmosphere through pore-like structures called stoma. With more plentiful and robust plants due to intensive agriculture, the amount of moisture corn and soy crops collectively release into the atmosphere has increased in the midwest since the 1950’s. This extra moisture, the study found, has caused summer air to cool and more precipitation to fall. In the last fifty years, average summertime rainfall in the midwest has increased by 15 percent and average summer temperatures have dropped by 0.5 degrees Celsius.

Roger Pielke Sr., a senior researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder commented on the study, he said, “This is a really important, excellent study. The leadership of the climate science community has not yet accepted that human land management is at least as important on regional and local climate as the addition of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by human activities.”

Since completing the study, the researchers have developed a formula that accounts for the causative relationship between plants and regional climate changes that can be entered into U.S. regional climate models. It correctly predicted those changes that have been observed in the midwest over the last 50 years.

The study opens the door for further research into land use changes and how they can affect local climate.

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