Summer is coming. Climate change could mean more heatwaves, but also more heat stress-resistant crop adaptations.
We’re bringing you exclusive content from our newsletter, The Forecast, right here on Medium. Sign up for our newsletter here. This story is from our feature called the Weather Corner, where we take a deep dive into weird weather around the world, from our May 19th, 2021, newsletter.
Summer’s fast approaching in the Northern Hemisphere, and it looks like it will be a scorcher, as they say.
Meteorologists are predicting a hot summer for 2021. That would fit in with a pattern of hotter summers over the past several decades, as climate change causes rising global temperatures. The last five years were the hottest ever recorded, for example,
That means more heatwaves, which have increased in frequency and severity over the last 10 to 20 years — a period of unusually hot weather that lasts two or more days, according to NOAA. In order to qualify, the heatwave has to be outside of the historical average for a given area. Overall, heatwaves as a type of extreme weather phenomena are becoming increasingly common, as climate change means that global temperatures rise.
Heatwaves happen in a location when air becomes trapped, usually due to a high-pressure system. High-pressure systems force air down toward the ground, preventing the air on the ground from rising. It’s like a lid on a pot. It keeps the air in, where it continues to heat up, and prevents rain from providing relief.
Hotter, longer summers with more heatwaves have serious implications for a wide range of human and animal activities.
For one, heatwaves can be fatal. Record heatwaves in Europe in 2003 killed 35,000 people. Also, the risk of blackout events spikes with extreme weather. One study from a group of Georgia Institute of Technology researchers found that blackouts and electrical grid failures have spiked 60% compared to the previous five-year period. (We don’t want another repeat of Texas’ rolling blackouts in February, which we’ve written about in the past.) Warmer weather would also impact bird migration and boost the spread of tropical diseases via mosquitoes.
As for agriculture, heat like this also poses unique challenges. Climate science isn’t quite sure exactly how climate change will impact agriculture, because it will have different impacts by location and crop. It’s also hard to study, because so many factors influence growing, including rainfall, sunlight, the quality of the soil, and the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, all of which are affected by climate change.
Still, while farming has generally become far more efficient in recent decades, heatwaves are exhausting and even fatal to farmworkers, and can wither certain crops. Extreme weather events like severe storms and drought can also affect the output of a farm, particularly smaller operations in poorer countries.
Often, populations that were already food insecure shoulder the heaviest burden of climate change. But there are still many opportunities to improve agricultural production in these vulnerable regions immediately, from better access to technology and financial services.
Seed companies have also been improving resistance to heat stress in crops that are typically vulnerable to high temperatures. One research project managed by the nonprofit the Crop Trust has been working on identifying wild seeds with unique adaptations, Fast Company reports. Researchers have already found: a carrot relative that evolved to grow in salty water; an oat relative resistant to a disease that can decimate farmed oats; and a relative of Bambara groundnut, an important African crop, better adapted to hot weather and drought.
Another interesting project is a five-year Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) research project led by The University of Western Australia’s (UWA) Institute of Agriculture Research Fellow Sheng Chen. The objective is to identify the genes that make canola heat-tolerant, which can help plant breeders create new commercial varieties, and help the industry maintain productivity as temperatures rose.