Heat to Become Major Threat by Century's End
Discover.com, Jan. 21, 2009
By the end of the century, the hottest temperatures in recent history will become typical, and the world's food supply will be in deep trouble as a result.
Those grim predictions come from a new study that looked at heat waves of the past as well as climate projections for the future to paint a frightening picture of what's to come: severe food shortages and rising malnutrition, especially in places where people are already poor and hungry.
"The changes are so big and in the wrong direction in places where it really matters," said agricultural economist David Bittisti, of the University of Washington, Seattle. He led the study, which appeared recently in the journal Science.
Battisti urges immediate reductions in fossil fuel emissions and agricultural preparations for a warmer world.
"If we don't adapt, we will have really serious problems," he told Discovery News. "People will need to either migrate or die."
Battisti and colleagues used 23 global climate models to forecast average growing season temperatures through the end of the century. All the models agreed: With our current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, there is a greater than 90 percent chance that by 2100, summers in the tropics and subtropics will be hotter than the hottest summers recorded between 1900 and 2006.
In temperate regions, last century's most extreme summers will be the norm.
To predict how such temperature changes might affect crop growth, the scientists looked at several past examples of extreme heat, including Western Europe's record hot summer of 2003. During that three-month heat wave, some 52,000 people died from heat-related stress, and corn yields dropped by more than 30 percent in Italy and France.
With time, growers can usually recover from events like these. But if temperatures get excessively hot and stay that way -- and not just locally but everywhere, the situation could be disastrous.
"We're looking at reductions in crop yield of 20, 30, or 40 percent in some cases," Battisti said. "The fact that this is a global impact all at the same time means that there [will be] no where to turn for food."
The tropics and subtropics include Africa, central Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Australia, Central America, the southern United States, and northern South America. More than 3 billion people live in those regions. One third of them are already malnourished, Battisti said. And the population will only continue to grow.
"They've given us an early glimpse into territory beyond charted human experience," said geographer Bill Easterling, of Pennsylvania State University in University Park. "We could be up against challenges for which we have no historical experience."
The study drives home the need to research and develop new agricultural strategies, Easterling added, such as more heat-resistant and drought-resistant crops, and production techniques that consume fewer fossil fuels.
"What was learned in this study was that we need to act now, not later," Easterling said. "We can't delay."
Climate warming means food shortages, study warns
Reuters News Service,
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The warming climate is likely to put stress on crops and livestock alike and could cause serious food shortages for half the world's population,
The worst effects will be in the regions where the poorest people already live -- the tropics and subtropics, the researchers wrote in the journal Science. But temperate regions will see very warm average temperatures, they added.
"In temperate regions, the hottest seasons on record will represent the future norm in many locations," David Battisti, a University of Washington atmospheric sciences professor, and Rosamond Naylor, director of Food Security and the Environment at California's Stanford University, wrote in their report.
The two combined direct observations with data from 23 global climate models.
They found a greater than a 90 percent probability that by 2100, growing-season low temperatures in the tropics and subtropics will be higher than the highest current temperatures.
"We are taking the worst of what we've seen historically and saying that in the future it is going to be a lot worse unless there is some kind of adaptation," Naylor said.
There have been some recent tastes of what is to come, such as a heat wave that struck
Record temperatures hurt key crops including maize and fruit and accelerated crop ripening by 10 to 20 days. Livestock were stressed, the soil was dryer and more water was used in agriculture, they said.
"I think what startled me the most is that when we looked at our historic examples there were ways to address the problem within a given year. People could always turn somewhere else to find food," Naylor said. "But in the future there's not going to be any place to turn unless we rethink our food supplies."
Battisti said 3 billion people live in the areas that will be worst affected. The researchers urged investment in development of crop varieties that can withstand higher heat.
"You are talking about hundreds of millions of additional people looking for food because they won't be able to find it where they find it now," he said.
"The stresses on global food production from temperature alone are going to be huge, and that doesn't take into account water supplies stressed by the higher temperatures."
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Rapidly warming climate is likely to seriously alter crop yields in the tropics and subtropics by the end of this century and, without adaptation, leave half of the world's population facing serious food shortages, according to a studypublished in the journal Science.
To compound matters, the population of this equatorial belt -- from about 35 degrees north latitude to 35 degrees south latitude -- is among the poorest on Earth and is growing faster than anywhere else, according to the study.
"This is a compelling reason for us to invest in adaptation, because it is clear that this is the direction we are going in terms of temperature, and it will take decades to develop new food crop varieties that can better withstand a warmer climate," said study co-author Rosamond Naylor, director of Stanford's Program on Food Security and the Environment. "We are taking the worst of what we've seen historically and saying that in the future it is going to be a lot worse unless there is some kind of adaptation."
Naylor collaborated with lead author David Battisti, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington. "The stresses on global food production from temperature alone are going to be huge, and that doesn't take into account water supplies stressed by the higher temperatures," Battisti said.
By combining direct observations with data from 23 global climate models, Battisti and Naylor determined there is a greater than 90 percent probability that, by 2100, the lowest growing-season temperatures in the tropics and subtropics will be higher than any temperatures recorded there to date.
The authors used the data as a filter to view historic instances of severe food insecurity -- including episodes in France in 2003 and the Ukraine in 1972 -- and concluded that such events are likely to become more commonplace. In the case of the Ukraine, a near-record heat wave reduced wheat yields and contributed to disruptions in the global cereal market that lasted two years.
"I think what startled me the most is that when we looked at our historic examples, there were ways to address the problem within a given year," Naylor said. "People could always turn somewhere else to find food, but in the future there's not going to be any place to turn unless we rethink our food supplies."
The serious climate issues won't be limited to the tropics, the authors conclude. As an example, they cite record temperatures that struck Western Europe in June, July and August of 2003, killing an estimated 52,000 people. That summer-long heat wave cut wheat yields and fodder production in France and Italy by one-third. In France alone, temperatures were nearly 6.5 degrees Fahrenheit above the long-term mean. Such temperatures could be the norm for France by 2100, the authors note.
In the tropics, the higher temperatures can be expected to cut yields of the primary food crops, maize and rice, by 20 to 40 percent, they said. But rising temperatures also are likely to play havoc with soil moisture, cutting yields even further.
"We have to be rethinking agriculture systems as a whole, not only thinking about new varieties but also recognizing that many people will just move out of agriculture, and even move from the lands where they live now," Naylor said.
Currently 3 billion people live in the tropics and subtropics, and the number is expected to nearly double by the end of the century. That area stretches from the southern United States to northern Argentina and southern Brazil, from northern India and southern China to southern Australia and includes all of Africa. The scientists said that many who now live in these areas subsist on less than $2 a day and depend largely on agriculture for their livelihoods.
"When all the signs point in the same direction, and in this case it's a bad direction, you pretty much know what's going to happen," Battisti said. "You are talking about hundreds of millions of additional people looking for food because they won't be able to find it where they find it now."
He said wheat makes up one-quarter of the calories consumed in India, but growth in wheat yields there has been stagnant for the last decade.
Temperature increases from climate change are expected to be less in equatorial regions than at higher latitudes, but because average temperatures in the tropics today are much higher than at mid-latitudes, rising temperature will have a greater impact on crop yields in the tropics. Recent research at the University of Washington has shown that even with much smaller temperature increases in the tropics, the impacts will be greater there because life in the tropics does not encounter much temperature variation and so is less adaptable. That makes an even stronger case to begin searching now for ways to deal with substantially warmer conditions, Battisti said.
"You can let it happen and painfully adapt, or you can plan for it," he said. "You also could mitigate it and not let it happen in the first place, but we're not doing a very good job of that."