THE past two years have been among the costliest on record both in terms of number of billion-dollar disasters and total cost of weather-related damages.
According to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the nearly nationwide drought in 2012 alone cost the U.S. economy $30 billion.
NOAA's annual summary of weather and climate disaster information noted 11 events that produced losses exceeding $1 billion in damages, for a total of $110 billion. The year's total damages ranked behind only 2005, when four hurricanes led to a tally of $160 million in losses.
In addition to the economic impacts of the 2012 drought, NOAA said 100 deaths were directly attributed to the associated heat waves. The drought was the largest since the 1930s, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture declaring more than 2,600 of the nation's 3,143 counties as disaster areas.
In a July report released by the American Sustainable Business Council and the Small Business Majority, small businesses were cited as being the most vulnerable to adverse impacts from climate change and extreme weather. The report lists agriculture as one of the industries in which small businesses — including farm operations — play a critical role.
"The U.S. business community is increasingly analyzing the risks, opportunities and financial implications of climate change and integrating them into long-term business plans," said Lea Reynolds, a senior policy analyst with M.J. Bradley & Associates and author of the report. "In recent years, the financial repercussions of weather variability and extremes have significantly impacted the U.S. economy by affecting both supply and demand for the products and services of almost every industry."
While climate and weather are not the same thing, the two issues are interrelated, with scientists frequently noting a correlation between climate change and increased meteorological volatility.
According to the small business report, one-third of small business owners surveyed said they had been personally affected by extreme weather, and 57% listed extreme weather events as "an urgent problem."
For the global food production sector, vulnerability was on full display in 2012. With drought in multiple countries pressuring already tight feed grain supplies, corn and soybean prices found or flirted with record levels, and livestock producers faced another year of razor-thin or negative margins.
According to a recent analysis by the Society for Risk Analysis, any disruption to U.S. corn exports — such as an extremely tight supply hindered by drought — could pose significant food security risks for many U.S. trading partners.
The report shows that significant stresses from climate change (among other potential stressors) could jeopardize food security in countries such as Japan, Mexico and Korea that source a significant percentage of their imports from the U.S.
Because corn is central to a variety of industries — ranging from meat and biofuel production to being an a important component of starch, oil, protein, alcohol and sweetener products — the global corn trade is inextricably linked to overall food security in a variety of ways.
Among the report's conclusions, the authors suggested that major exporters such as the U.S. should consider potential solutions to combat the effects of climate change for the purpose of maintaining consistent corn supplies.
As 2012 proved, however, that is somewhat more easily said than done. Drought, generally speaking, is a combination of heat and dryness, and USDA researchers found that the combination lowered U.S. corn yields last year by more than 40 bu. per acre, resulting in the smallest average yield since 1995.
While favorable planting weather allowed farmers to get the crop off to a good start, conditions changed quickly. An extremely dry June is estimated to have lowered corn yields by some 19 bu. per acre, and July further reduced yields by 22-23 bu. per acre (Figure 1).
Economic Research Service analysts determined that high temperatures siphoned some 13 bu. from the final yield, but dry weather was the bigger culprit, serving as the primary cause of the overall reduction in corn yields.
In fact, a corn yield model based on historical data from the past 25 years suggests that when other factors are held constant, dry weather in July reduces corn yields more than wet weather increases them (Figure 2).
While climate change concerns and a steadily growing global population have reawakened Malthusian fears of "peak food" production, new technologies are likely to avert widespread food shortages in the future.
According to a report from Lux Research, "disruptive technologies" such as crop genomics and precision agriculture will keep the most dire predictions from coming to pass.
"Technologies that achieved food security in the 20th century will prove inadequate in the 21st century," Aditya Ranade, the lead author of the Lux report, said. "However, advances such as precision agriculture and genomics-enabled modified crops will help dispel Malthusian fears, at least for the two major food grains: wheat and rice."
Examining several major agricultural production countries and production technology trends, the report says higher yields resulting from better technologies and practices are the key to future food security. Specifically, the report calls for adoption of transgenic wheat and rice as the best prospects for closing likely supply gaps.
Climate data may predict crop yields
SCIENTISTS with the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) now think climate data can be used as a tool to predict crop failures months prior to harvest.
In a report published in Nature Climate Change, researchers reported that temperature and soil moisture have such strong relationships to yields for crops like wheat and rice that a computer model could predict crop failures as early as three months in advance.
"You can estimate ultimate yields according to the climatic condition several months before," said Molly Brown, a research scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "From the spring conditions, the pre-existing conditions, the pattern is set."
Brown said the model can forecast both minor changes in yield and the devastating types of failures experienced in 2012 with drought in numerous countries. She said having such predictive capabilities could allow governments and food companies to plan accordingly by boosting food prediction in some areas to offset shortfalls in others.
While the model was not successful in every region of the world, the study found that its predictive capabilities were very strong for about one-third of global cropland. Researchers studied four crops — corn, soybeans, wheat and rice — and found the model most useful for wheat and rice.