Updated and edited 11-10-14
Climate has a lot to do with how plants grow. Naturally this is relevant to us because among other things plants represent our food supply, or the basis for it.
And as has been expected, that climate is starting to change. (Update: Claims that our changing climate just “coincidentally” reflects normal random movement and not our ongoing atmospheric heat energy absorption changes make no scientific sense on any level. A big part of the reason why, as well as the pattern that nonetheless perpetuates such claims, can now be found here.)
As the link just shared points out:
13 of the 14 warmest years on record have all been in the first 14 years of this decade…and 2014, according to NOAA, is on track to become the warmest year ever.
Despite this, most of the increased heat energy from a higher level of long lived atmospheric greenhouse gases is going into the world ocean, which has been gaining heat for decades; and at a rate many times faster than likely at any time in the past 10,000 years, and accelerating.
Net glacial ice sheet melt is now occurring at both poles, and at least one set of ice sheets in the more stable and larger Antarctic (worth about 10 plus feet of sea level rise on its own), is now facing likely irreversible melt. And ice sheet loss is not only occurring, but accelerating in both polar regions, particularly in Greenland, where the rate of acceleration is becoming near “remarkable.”
There has also been an increase in extreme weather, along with changes in precipitation intensity. While at the same time, much of what is written on the tie between our changing atmosphere and unusual extreme weather events cherry picks select data or mistakes basic statistics, and misconstrues the basic reality that everything that is a part of our climate is affected by our atmospheric shift, because our climate to some degree has already been affected by that atmospheric shift.
Yet we over focus on the almost silly question of whether “climate change” did or didn’t “cause” this event, when it caused all and none, simultaneously, as it’s now a part of our world, and all climate is a reflection of that world.
Similarly, isolating out whether a “particular” storm would have occurred, or would have occurred in the same way in the absence of our major atmospheric shift, is pointless. In some ways it is also theoretically near impossible to do. Yet drawing the conclusion of an overall total effect, and to some measure perhaps a range of extent – what matters – is far from impossible.
That is, we can know that we are affecting the movement of climate, and the reflection of weather thus within it, to an increasingly (and, albeit erratic, accelerating) degree, without being able to precisely write out the script in advance, as if climate did not still represent variable weather over many decades, and that weather was still largely unpredictable to at least some degree with it.
Yet there’s nevertheless extensive hype that the climate really isn’t much changing. Or that if it is, it’s simply random, and thus represents what the earth would be doing even if we hadn’t increased the concentrations of long lived greenhouse gases to levels not seen on earth in millions of years.
This of course would mean said geologically radical atmospheric change, by similar remarkable coincidence, is nevertheless not changing or affecting the climate – which is instead proceeding along the path it would have had our atmosphere not been altered. (In scientific terms this is called a flight of fancy. In much of the media’s eye, and climate change refuters eyes – some of whom are scientists but, notably, very few of whom are actual climate scientists – it is called a “point of view.”)
We expected climate to change, and it has now started to so change.
And most of that change is affecting the things that will both affect future change, and drive climate, and that are being all but ignored while we over-focus on the misleading picture of air temperature alone.
We don’t know exactly what will change in terms of some specific functions of climate. But we have a pretty good general idea of some things that will or may change. While there are some things we don’t really have a good idea of the long term range of change on.
Such as precipitation patterns, which are ultimately a reflection of climate itself, and thus become part of it.
While we don’t really know, we expect overall precipitation patterns to change for the basic reason that precipitation is ultimately the release of water molecules that are accumulated as a result of heat. More relevantly, as regional patterns over time are likely to vary wildly in response to what is in essence, again, a multi million year geologic shift in the net addition of energy to our earth lower atmosphere system (and one that is relatively “sudden” in geologic terms), precipitation patterns are much more likely to change within certain regions.
And the biggest problem climate change might pose for agriculture in some ways, could be a major change in our overall precipitation patterns; particularly on a regional basis.
This would include changes in various regions from dry to wet, and vice versa. And changes in the general intensity patterns and rate of precipitation.
With a generally warmer, changing atmosphere – that will both evaporate, and can hold, more moisture – there is a high chance of more intense precipitation events; with, in some areas, longer periods of no or minor precipitation in between more intense events.
The first effect, a general shifting of the overall precipitation level, will have major impacts on various regions, depending on the level of change, and those regions themselves:
Large scale agricultural production, or a society in particular, can’t always just “get up and move” to another region. So poor regions of the globe, for example, that depend upon local agricultural conditions and that have less access to water or funds for large scale irrigation, would be badly hurt by decreases in overall precipitation amounts. And they would be potentially devastated by any major change into a far more arid regional climate from the one they have come to depend on.
The second effect – the potential increase in the intensity and variance in precipitation events – may not be as problematic in full for those areas that otherwise simply get hammered with a major change in the direction of hostile (generally, much more arid), growing conditions. But this effect will be more generally problematic across the board for at least two main reasons:
The first is that our current system of rivers and streams have either evolved, or been fine tuned, over the past few hundred thousand to few million years. (And in some cases less.) They are generally, although not perfectly, a reflection of broader longer term precipitation and evaporation patterns, not “random.” So the rivers or river and stream structure in one area wouldn’t necessarily be very adept at handling the precipitation patterns of another, for example.
Rivers also take a while to carve out from the land; they can’t be changed overnight. (And even less so with a lot of structures, other buildup and macadam, prevalent in a lot of areas.)
An increase in precipitation intensity also puts more runoff pressures on a region’s landscape. And thus, the greater the frequency and the greater amount of excess precipitation, the more common and more intense the flooding.
This effect has already been furthered by infrastructural buildup, which can sometimes narrow the effective area for natural water flow pathways in response to either ongoing intense, or changing, precipitation, and often removes trees and other natural features that help anchor the ground, control erosion, promote or allow for ground absorption, and lessen the negative effects of excess runoff.
But when it comes, again, to plants specifically, the potential increase in precipitation intensity presents an interesting future agricultural issue. For this reason: Plants generally evolved under present conditions.
It appears from fossil remains and other indicia that plants from some of the eras long long ago – when long lived atmospheric greenhouse gases were more prevalent, oceans much higher, and the globe generally warmer – and more humid, that plants were often larger.
While this may not represent all the species of such eras, it does at least make some sort of superficial common sense: A larger plant, particularly one with a strong and deeper root system, can in theory withstand the rigors and volatility of more varying, and potentially periodically intense, precipitation patterns.
This might be due to stronger anchoring, a deeper soil penetration for extra absorption capacity, and a larger upload and perhaps even storage capacity for employment during excess water availability, for example.
Think of an unwatered garden after a period of excessive drought. Many of the plants – particularly those most shallow rooted – will have perished; while nearby trees look perfectly fine.
If general precipitation patterns do accelerate in intensity – meaning higher chances of longer periods of little water, as well as of excess water in both short term intense precipitation events or multiple events over a short period of time – current crop structures might become increasingly pressured, as a higher and higher percentage of total precipitation becomes unavailable for plant growth, or in essence “wasted.”
This is already starting to happen in many areas, while many others – notably Australia, an area that leads even the U.S. in denying climate change, and already the driest continent on the planet – have been experiencing “unusual” levels of drought intensity.
Increasing intensity of events interspersed with larger variation in between significant precipitation events means there will be longer periods with insufficient or less than optimal available ground water, while there will be other periods of excess water that can’t be absorbed, and is lost due to extra runoff and even deeper ground absorption from excess water during long periods of intense precipitation.
But, plants, with human breeding assistance, can often change quickly. After all, as one example, a simple spindly wild mustard has, with much aid from the hand of man, been shaped into a family of some of the easiest growing and healthiest foods on the planet: One that includes cabbages, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, rapeseed (from which canola oil is derived), kale, collards, arugula, and turnips.
So perhaps we might pull off an assist toward development of longer or more extensive root systems, changed leaf water loss patterns, etc., as the needs of plants change in response to changing climate, and in particular, precipitation patterns.
But an increase in possible precipitation intensity and variance will still comprise at least part of the agricultural challenge in response to an increasingly shifting climate. Particularly for some areas of the globe, more than others, as the path of change won’t necessarily wait for our human assisted floral adaptation to it.
And, at least in the shorter term (what we’re concerned with in terms of human generational lifetimes), there may be some restrictions upon it relative to the level of change that can easily occur, given what has already been a multi million year shift (increase) in the concentration of long lived atmospheric greenhouse gases – which in turn have been radically increasing the net earth lower atmosphere energy balance. (Most of which has been going into starting and now accelerating the process of net glacial ice loss, increasing ocean heat energy, and permafrost softening and melt, all of which, to the popular and often the media eye, are largely masking the real issue of “climate change.” Here’s an interesting and it seems just now “surfacing” example.)
The increasing heat can also be problematic – a lot of plants simply stop growing past a certain temperature. But increased heat in other climates may extend growing seasons. And, in rare areas where (despite all the misinformed hype about how increased CO2 is great for plants!) CO2 is the limiting factor, increased CO2 can increase plant growth.
Much learning will likely be ongoing, as systems change, and out of necessity we struggle, experiment, and explore to adapt. (Scientifically intriguing for some wealthier areas of the globe, or, depending on how bad it might get, at least wealthier or “well off” peoples, on the one hand; very problematic to potentially devastating for poorer, less flexible, and regionally more vulnerable areas of the globe, on the other.)
But another area that in advance looks particularly problematic is that of increasing overall weather volatility.
Plants are geared to certain patterns in both light, and temperature. A changing climate is not going to change light patterns. That’s a function of the simple rotation of the earth and it’s slow undulating year long rock back and forth on its imaginary axis. (Of course if discovering that something we did was changing the rotation of the earth and its tilt on its axis and that meant it would affect the climate, climate change naysayers would find ways to refute that as well.)
But a changing climate is going to affect temperature. Increasingly, and, along the rocky way, probably – as was one of the earliest predictions, and already in these early days of “pre change,” statistically borne out – in a more volatile fashion.
This makes sense, as a normally relatively stable globe starts to respond to the increasing changes to its basic climate affecting structures (oceans, ice caps, sea ice, permafrost regions, and of course the more direct lower atmospheric absorption and re radiation of heat energy itself) in what is for all practical purpose a near geologic instant, until, voila, years, possibly centuries, down the line, when climate “relatively” re-stabilizes in response to the effected changes, long, long after the atmosphere’s levels of long lived greenhouse gases, from a geologic perspective, become at least relatively stable again.
That is, an increasingly changing system from a “relative” stases, to an ultimate new stases when it comes to what is ultimately an expression of it’s net energy – climate – is likely to be a lot more volatile, and overall, inherently changing and unpredictable, as well.
This can be kind of problematic for plants.
Think of a fruit orchard, for instance. Many fruits need a certain number of “cold days” to blossom and bear fruit. The number of days will likely continue to (increasingly) shift, and orchards might shift northward. But the increasing volatility also makes it more and more unpredictable, and subjects more and more areas to potentially insufficient cold days without moving to climes where the warmer period duration may not be sufficiently long.
Many fruit trees set their blossoms in response to a temperature change. And a late frost which kills the blossoms will prevent that tree tree from bearing any fruit at all, for that entire year.
For a homeowner enthralled with their side yard apple or apricot tree, this might range from a curiosity to a nuisance. But to an orchard owner who depends on the yearly crop, it can be a bit more.
And it adds even more to an already uncertain enterprise. Consider the following tale:
I was playing in a large, fairly publicized poker tournament some years back, and our mid level table became chatty. One fellow was playing more like a “gambler,” than the calculating, aggressive, strategist that decent poker tournaments tend to present, and increasingly funnel as the tournament moves forward; and being extremely mirthful about it.
A few humorous but very friendly remarks were made, and this very pleasant fellow bellowed, “ah, heck, this don’t matter at all, what I do for a living is real gambling.” He sat on the word “real” for a long time, with just a hint of a much more serious tone than his statement, and most of our banter, had taken.
For an instant the hand was nearly forgotten as we all wildly conjectured. Even the dealer – consummate, almost machine like professionals in any well run, serious tournament – essentially stopped practically mid deal.
If you’re reading this article/post, you may have guessed the answer.
“I’m a farmer. And that, I tell you, is all a gamble.”
We all laughed, enjoying the camaraderie and cultural insight while simultaneously participating in such an intensely competitive, focused, and “serious” event. But I think we all got it.
I’ve grown a lot of plants in my time – even more since. And I really got it.
Farming is a gamble.
But there are a lot of “knowns”; or, at least relative knowns. What is becoming less known – and increasingly unpredictable – in addition to precipitation patterns in many areas, is the general nature of the season, and temperatures.
If you think being a business man or banker and not having a decent handle on what the general inflation level range might be for the next few years, try being a farmer – without much of a backup plan or lots of extra seasonal “room” – without much of a handle on just when temperatures might reasonably stay within the necessary growing range, for instance.
A lot can go wrong with extreme weather, from both the extreme nature of it, to the unpredictability, and being caught by surprise. In hot weather, for instance extreme humid can cause pollen to become so sticky it’s doesn’t fall, while long periods of dryness can cause it to be so dry it doesn’t stick to the female part of the flower. In both cases the plant won’t set, or will set, less fruit. (Fruit incidentally refers to most things we also commonly think of as vegetables, such as cucumbers, squashes, tomatoes, corn, etc.)
Extreme heat with drought can rapidly kill plants. Premature cold spells (for example, in more northern climes that have had to shift what is grown toward warmer weather crops, as the seasons have changed) can kill plants well before they’ve realized their full yield. And late cold spells can kill them even before they start yielding at all.
Fires are also problematic, as drier conditions and hotter conditions in many regions overall is leading both a larger risk, and larger number of, fires; including many that are intense.
Many plants – tomatoes for instance – won’t set fruit if the nighttime temperatures go too high. One of the most “certain” early predictions of the phenomenon referred to as climate change – and one of the most consistent patterns to have emerged – is the increasing overall gap between day and nighttime temperatures.
Several reasons account for this. One of the more intriguing is the general increase in overall evaporative and moisture retention capacity when the atmosphere is warmer. This can (and so far studies seem to suggest that in a mild positive to positive feedback loop it is), lead to overall increased water vapor from generally increasing temperatures.
Water vapor has both a cooling and a heating effect during the day. The extremely short lived water vapor molecule is a reflection of climate itself and not a driver of it (despite one odd published “theory” – that itself winds up yielding a fairly interesting climate change information story – to the contrary). But it is at any one point in time an important greenhouse gas; in fact the predominant one, because there is a lot of it in the air.
During the day water vapor molecules act as greenhouse gases. And as with all atmospheric greenhouse gases, they absorb and re-radiate heat energy in the mid to longer wave length spectrum – which is to say almost no solar radiation (either incoming, or reflected off of the earth’s surface), but most thermal radiation (heat energy emitted by a body, such as the earth itself, or structures upon it).
But water vapor also acts as an atmospheric reflector of incoming solar radiation, increasing the overall albedo – or sunlight reflecting capacity – of the earth/atmosphere, and causing a higher percentage of sunlight to never reach the lower atmosphere/surface of the earth (where some is then in turn absorbed as heat energy) to begin with.
At night only one of these two phenomena occur. There is no incoming solar radiation, so the reflectivity question isn’t an issue.
But the re-capture of thermal radiation still is. This is energy emitted in wavelength form, and, specifically, the type of energy that is absorbed and re radiated in all directions by greenhouse gases – without which the earth would be a large almost lifeless ball of ice floating through space.
If water vapor levels are higher, more thermal radiation will be “trapped.” Particularly at night.
Regardless, the gap in day and night time temperatures, in many regions across the globe, has considerably narrowed, which as it continues, will also continue to have more and more intense consequences for at least some of the plants upon which we rely.
But while agriculture, including its extensive use of and indirect reliance upon fossil fuels, and large impact upon the landscape, is the rarely talked about main contributor to the phenomenon known too popularly as climate change (the issue is really the multi million year – or geologically radical – alteration in our atmosphere’s long term heat “trapping” quotient), the dance the world is going to have with this mainstay of existence – providing enough food – is probably going to be an increasingly interesting one.
And by “interesting,” for many poorer areas and peoples of the world, this means “bad.
Potentially, extremely bad.
This is also ironic, because some groups that have not necessarily been outspoken advocates for the poor, when it comes to climate change, have suddenly become the “Mother Teresa,” of indigent poor advocacy, on the ill conceived and highly ironic assertion that addressing climate change (not climate change itself, rendering informed scientists/anthropologists extremely frustrated in the process) will harm the poor.
But what is really going to harm the poor in particular is the radical alteration of our atmosphere – again, reflecting a change that has now taken us back to levels not seen in millions of years,and a large portion of which has occurred in just the last 50 or so years alone; and which is right now still occurring at geologically breakneck speed.
It’s just a question of how much we mitigate it, and how sensibly, and quickly, we do so. Both in terms of the U.S. leading the way – which will increase our moral ability as the world’s bully pulpit and most powerful (and somewhat feared) nation to encourage change, desire to do so by our show of faith, and an increasing return by other countries knowing that more and more of their own effort and the efforts of others is contributing – and elsewhere.