“There are so many cultural differences to consider,” notes Dave McGlinchey. “From how the meetings proceed, to specific local sensitivities, even down to Congolese humor. Even if I was cracking jokes in fluent French, it would be impossible to get the tone right. That’s why having someone like Joseph was so important.”
In July, McGlinchey, Chief of Government Relations at Woodwell Climate, traveled with members of the Center’s risk team to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo for a two-day workshop. The Center has been involved in community work in the country for over 15 years, led in large part by Joseph Zambo, Woodwell’s policy coordinator in the DRC. This workshop represents the latest collaboration— an initial assessment of the country’s future climate risks. Congolese professors, scientists, and government officials joined to discuss gaps in the data and to develop adaptation strategies to be included in a final report later this year.
The workshop was facilitated by Zambo who, with poignant questions, stories to recount, and of course, a bit of humor, guided the group through the tough work of planning for the future.
The community risk work in Kinshasa is one of over 20 successful risk assessments conducted as part of Woodwell Climate’s Just Access initiative. The project produces free, location-specific climate risk analysis for cities and regions both in the US and abroad. The hope is that, by providing free access to quality data— something often offered by private companies at prohibitively high costs — Just Access can facilitate adaptation planning for under-resourced communities.
“With Just Access, we want to remove the barrier of cost for communities that want to understand the long-term risks they are facing because of climate change,” says McGlinchey. “Often these communities are the ones already facing climate-related challenges that will worsen as the century goes on.”
Guided by a community’s particular concerns, Woodwell’s Risk team works with available data on key climate risks—flooding, heat, water scarcity, fire— and uses models to construct an image of how those events are likely to change as global temperatures climb. In the DRC, water is a core concern, both in its absence, causing drought and crop failure, and in its abundance.
“Heavy rains cause horrific flooding in the city of Mbandaka almost once or twice a year,” says Zambo. “In the capital, heavy rains are also destroying homes, roads, electrical structures, and internet connections.”
The most pressing risks vary from region to region. Across the world, in Acre, Brazil, Senior Scientist Emeritus Dr. Foster Brown says, “the word here is ‘heat.’” In Homer and Seldovia, Alaska, increasing wildfire days featured heavily.
But improvements in data availability and resolution, as well as refinements of climate models, have made it possible to replicate assessments for a variety of risks in places as distant and different from each other as Homer, Alaska and Kerala, India. Risk assessments can offer both region-wide crop yield estimates and street-level maps of flooding for a single city district to inform community planning.
Key to the success of municipal-level work are relationships with people like Zambo, who can offer insights into the needs of a community that can’t be approximated from the outside. Each community is different— in what information they need to make decisions, their level of technical expertise, their governmental capacity to implement changes, and in the ways they prefer to work.
So, with each new assessment, the Risk team starts from scratch, building new relationships and listening to community needs. This process takes double time on the international stage, where a history of superficial NGO and academic involvement can overshadow collaboration.
“A main goal with these reports is trust,” says Darcy Glenn, a Woodwell Climate research assistant who organized a risk assessment and workshop for Province 1 in Nepal last year with help from connections from her master’s program. “Building trust in the models, and trust in the methodology, and in us. That’s been our biggest hurdle when working with municipal leaders.”
Building that trust takes time. Province 1 was one of an early set of communities who worked with Woodwell Climate on risk assessments. While local leaders were interested in flooding and landslide risk information, what they really wanted was to increase the capacity of their own scientists and government employees to conduct climate modeling themselves. So the project was adapted to meet that need by tailoring a training workshop. The process took over a year to complete but Glenn says, that’s relationship-building time that can’t be rushed.
It also highlights the importance of pre-established long term connections in the places we work.
“It’s one thing to go into a new community by yourself, it’s another to go in with someone who has been there 30 years and can help navigate,” says Dr. Brown. “You have to look for the key people who can help make things happen.”
Within Brazil, Dr. Brown is now regarded as one of these “key people”. He has been living and working in Rio Branco for over 30 years and his credibility as a member of the community helped facilitate an assessment of extreme heat risk in the region. In the DRC, Zambo has been working with Woodwell Climate on various projects for over a decade. Without their expertise to bridge cultural and language gaps, completing projects in Brazil and the DRC would not have been possible.
After getting risk information into the hands of communities, then comes the hard work of putting it to use. For Dr. Christopher Schwalm, Director of Woodwell Climate’s Risk Program, “the goal of the risk assessments is to give communities every potential tool we can to build resilience for themselves and future generations. With access to the right information, the next step in the adaptation planning process can begin.”
In Rio Branco, Dr. Brown says speaking to the changes people are already noticing has helped individuals connect better to the data. He’s been using the context of heat and fire alongside information from their report to strengthen conversations about existing forest and climate initiatives, authoring an alert for the tri-national “MAP” region (Madre de Dios in Peru, Acre in Brazil, and Pando in Bolivia) about heat conditions and the implications for this year’s fire season.
He has also been introducing the information from the report to the community in other ways— teaching and speaking at events. According to Dr. Brown, widespread understanding of both near- and long-term climate risks will become more important for all communities as climate change progresses and impacts each place differently. Cities and towns will need reliable information to help them practically plan for the future.
“We’re trying to get people to expand their time ranges and start thinking about the future. And this report has helped,” says Dr. Brown. “Because the people who are going to see 2100 are already here. What will we be able to tell them about their future?”
Summit County, Utah is preparing for a changing climate.
The high-elevation county boasts a strong winter sports economy, vast swaths of national forest and agricultural land, and a population of 43,000 people that stand to be affected by climate-driven changes. The risks to the county’s health and economy from climate change were outlined in a recent report by Woodwell Climate, and shared with the community through the first in a series of climate change and public health panels.
The risk assessment was completed as a part of the Center’s Just Access initiative to provide free climate risk insights to municipalities across the globe, in order to equip them for the changes ahead. Working with members of Summit County’s Sustainability Department, as well as members of the community at large, the Woodwell team targeted three major climate risk variables for analysis— drought, water scarcity, and wildfire.
According to Emily Quinton, Sustainability Program Manager for Summit County, these risks are ones the county is already concerned about, based on existing conditions, but wanted to know what that would mean for them in coming decades.
“We have some good baseline knowledge about the risks we are facing already,” Quinton said. “What was different and new that the Woodwell assessment could offer was those much longer-term future projections.”
In Summit County, the Sustainability Department is a subset of the Public Health Department, which encouraged the risk assessment to delve into the ways in which climate risks affect the health of county residents. Changes in water availability were a particular concern for the department.
The report found that the northern and easternmost portions of the county are most likely to be affected by drought. Summit County is already experiencing severe drought conditions 40% of the year; that number is expected to increase to 50% by midcentury.
Water scarcity will also increase. Driven by both increasing demand from the population and decreasing availability, water scarcity in most communities within Summit County is expected to be at 189% by 2030— meaning demand will be nearly twice that of available supply.
“With the drought and water scarcity topics,” said Quinton, “making the connection between how a decrease in water quantity will place risk on water quality was important. Monitoring water quality is a really crucial responsibility of the Public Health Department.”
Woodwell Research Assistant, Darcy Glenn, who worked previously in Summit County’s Sustainability Department and helped facilitate the production of the report says, “If you don’t have any water in your wells, water quality goes down because you don’t have enough to dilute any contaminant that might be a problem.”
Summit County currently grapples with wildfire threat as well. Wildfire danger days— in which temperature and moisture conditions make fires more likely to burn out of control— will become a more common occurrence, leading to fires that cause more evacuations, damage, and air quality concerns. The majority of the county will add eight or more wildfire danger days to their year by the end of the century.
Public health can be a less polarizing context in which to discuss climate risks publicly. Despite the political nature surrounding climate change in some regions, Glenn notes public health can serve as a lens most people relate to and take seriously.
“It can be hit or miss on climate change, but if your kid has asthma, you want to know about your air quality. Changes in the environment, whether people acknowledge climate change or not, align with things they’ve seen,” says Glenn. “So we’re trying to approach the topic in a way that’s accessible and start a conversation that’s welcoming to the whole community.”
After the completion of the assessment, Woodwell Risk team members presented the information to the Summit County Board of Health, then opened up communications with the public. In May, the county’s Health Department hosted the first of three planned events in a speaker series, focused on sharing the results of the report to help county residents better understand the extent of risk where they live. Glenn spoke alongside local climate experts and took questions from attendees.
The next two events in the series will discuss the physical and mental health impacts of climate change, as well as some potential adaptation solutions. According to Quinton, these events will aid the county in developing plans for resilience that address the top concerns of the public.
“Climate preparedness can’t happen without an understanding of what the potential risks are. The Climate Risk Assessment and the public events feel like important steps to more directly integrate climate change into the preparedness work Summit County is already doing,” says Quinton.
A recent paper, led by Woodwell Climate postdoctoral researcher Dr. José Safanelli, revealed that Brazil’s farms have been steadily moving out of the most suitable regions for agriculture—opening up a significant portion of the world’s agricultural production to vulnerability from the changing climate.
The study, published in Applied Geography, used an index to assess “Grain-cropping suitability” for two key staple crops—soy and maize. Suitability was determined by climatic factors (temperature and precipitation), as well as soil quality and terrain. The result was a continuous map detailing the areas of the country with the best biophysical conditions for growing crops.
Overlaying land use change data from the past two decades with this new map revealed a historical trend of agricultural lands expanding towards areas with poorer soil quality and lower suitability for grain-cropping, primarily in the north central and northeastern portion of the country.
Farmers in Brazil have been moving north to this “agricultural frontier” since the 1980s— drawn primarily by economic opportunity, as well as the higher quality climate and terrain conditions along the southern edge of the Amazon.
Despite the favorable climate, the soil is inferior. Farmers are seeking cheap land, which often comes in the form of degraded pasture, originally created by clearing forest. Rainforest soils are not naturally nutrient rich and, without any additional inputs, the soil quality becomes depleted after just a few years. Many farmers know this fact, but come anyway. Dr. Safanelli has even seen this trend unfold within his own family.
“I was born in the south of Brazil, a region that has good soil conditions. Recently, two of my uncles who are farmers emigrated to Mato Grosso. There, the climate is wetter and more stable, but the soils are poor—depleted of nutrients.”
Additional research by Woodwell Climate Assistant Scientist Dr. Ludmila Rattis suggests that climatic advantage may be short-lived. Her work indicates that the climate in these areas is changing— becoming drier and hotter as global temperatures rise—and deforestation for agricultural expansion just makes the problem worse.
“We showed in our paper that these places have good climate and terrain suitability for now,” says Dr. Safanelli. “But they are restricted in soil quality. In Mato Grosso—the largest agricultural production state in Brazil—for example, the climate has been more stable and favorable than in other parts. The problem is that, according to projected climate scenarios, climate change may push these areas out of a good suitability space.”
Brazil is currently the world’s top producer of soy, and in the top three for maize. But this expansion into lower-suitability regions has introduced greater vulnerability into the agricultural system. Farmers already must provide greater investment in fertilizing the soil to make it productive, which cuts into their margins for profit. Add to that the fact that poor-quality soils, typically low in organic matter, can make crops less resilient to extreme heat and drought.
“Crop evapotranspiration—a process that directly governs crop growth and yield—depends on soil for absorbing rainfall and storing water. These marginal soils can make farmers more susceptible to climate change’s expected drier and warmer conditions, as they have limited capacity for storing water,” says Dr. Safanelli.
Reducing these vulnerabilities, Dr. Safanelli says, will require an integrated approach— improving land management practices and increasing crop yields on existing land to reduce the pressure to expand. “Reducing the vulnerability of croplands may be possible by adopting management practices that increase the resilience of the farming system, such as fully incorporating the principles of conservation agriculture, integrated production through agroforestry, crop-forest-livestock systems, or irrigation to control dryness. And perhaps allocating some of these marginal lands for land restoration, concentrating our resources in more highly suitable croplands.”
As the planet warms, drought is an increasing threat in many regions. Research led by Woodwell Research Assistant Isabelle Runde, modeled the frequency of drought across the globe, analyzing drought changes in forest, food, and energy systems as temperatures surpass 2, 3, and 4 degrees Celsius.
Models show that unlike in a stable climate, unreliable water resources and increasing temperatures make drought more likely in many places. For every increase of 0.5 degrees C, an additional 619 million people could become exposed to extreme drought 1 in every 4 years. This is in addition to the 1.7 billion people (nearly a quarter of today’s global population) who are already exposed to these conditions in a world that has warmed by a little more than 1 degree C.
Tropical forests are one of the planet’s key natural climate solutions— able to prevent 1 degree of warming through both carbon sequestration and regional cooling effects. Deforestation, fragmentation and degradation from things like fire, and disease threaten to turn these forests from a vital sink to a source of emissions.
In recent years, the Amazon has been a net carbon source due to increased extreme drought and deforestation, leaving the Congo rainforest as the world’s last remaining stable tropical forest carbon sink.
As warming surpasses 2 degrees, the annual likelihood of drought in the Congo rainforest begins increasing faster than in the Amazon. Drought can make a forest more susceptible to further degradation, such as fire or disease, and reduces carbon sink capacity by stressing or killing trees and placing the ecosystem under stress.
Global crop production is highly concentrated in key breadbasket regions— nearly 72% of the world’s maize, wheat, rice, and soy are produced in just 5 countries. Extreme drought can reduce the productivity levels of these staple crops, among others, potentially triggering widespread food insecurity, hunger and economic disruption.
By 2 degrees of warming, the probability of drought in the breadbasket regions of both China and the United States will be greater than 50% — meaning an extreme drought roughly every other year.
Disruption will be much higher in countries where jobs in agriculture comprise a large segment of the economy. In Mexico, one of the world’s top 10 producers of maize, 12% of the workforce is in agriculture and at 1 degree, the country already has among the greatest areas of cropland exposed to drought. 90% probabilities—indicating near-annual drought—begin to emerge in some parts of the country at 2 degrees of warming.This kind of recurrent extreme drought will stress water resources for agriculture.
The Mediterranean also is a drought hotspot. Drought probability in Mediterranean croplands will increase rapidly between 2 and 3 degrees of warming, rising from just 10% to over 50% of cropland affected by drought in 3 out of 4 years.
Hydroelectricity supplies a sixth of global energy demand, and is a low-cost, low-emission alternative to fossil fuels. The overwhelming majority of new hydropower plants since 1990 have been constructed in fast-growing, developing nations.
High dependence on hydropower makes countries like Brazil and China vulnerable to energy disruption during periods of drought. Brazil draws nearly two thirds of its energy from hydroelectric resources. During a three year drought between 2012 and 2015 in Brazil, hydroelectric generation declined by 20% each year. If warming exceeds 3 degrees C, more than half of Brazil’s hydroelectric capacity will experience a likelihood of annual drought greater than 50%.
Extreme drought can also be counterproductive to reducing carbon emissions. During years of drought, expensive fossil fuel based energy is often brought in to fill demands. In addition, droughts often coincide with extreme heat events, when electricity demand peaks to run air conditioners. Beyond 3 degrees of warming, more than a third of the planet’s hydroelectric capacity will likely be exposed to extreme drought every other year.
Current international climate goals aim to limit warming to between 1.5 and 2 degrees C, but without urgent intervention, we are on track to push past that limit to at least 2.5 degrees C. Projections past 2 degrees of warming show a future where extreme drought is common, exposing already-vulnerable people, places, and economies to greater water shortages, while making it even harder to curb emissions. In order to guard water resources and the systems that depend on them, emissions need to be cut rapidly. And places already feeling the impacts of warming will need to brace to adapt to a hotter, dryer version of the world.
The city of Chelsea, Massachusetts persevered through the American Revolution and two great fires. Now its resilience is being tested by climate change, as rising sea levels and more intense storms have begun sending frequent flood waters into the city.
Woodwell Climate Research Center recently conducted a thorough analysis of flood risk in Chelsea, identifying where flooding is likely to increase with climate change. The picture it paints is one where the city’s most vulnerable citizens get hit the hardest.
Located north of Boston where Chelsea Creek merges into the Mystic River and the Boston Harbor, Chelsea is vulnerable to two forms of flooding— storm surge from the harbor and extreme rainfall events. Currently, 15% of the city falls within an area of potential flooding. That number will more than double to 34% by 2081.
The return interval of high intensity flooding events will also increase. Scientists use the term “1-in-100 year events” to refer to the kind of large-scale flooding that has a 1% likelihood of occurring over the course of a century. Woodwell calculated that today’s 1-in-100 year rainfall events could become three times as likely by mid-century, and 1-in-100 year storm surge events could be annual occurrences by 2081. That would be like the city of Chelsea experiencing flooding proportional to Hurricane Sandy every year.
Chelsea was settled on a salt marsh punctuated by five hills. The city was developed from the high ground down, and much of the marsh and wetlands around Island End and Chelsea Creek were filled in over the city’s history. These low lying areas form the city’s vulnerable floodplain.
According to Woodwell’s analysis, that floodplain contains much of the city’s vital industry. Two oil terminals sit on Chelsea’s waterfront— the Chelsea Sandwich and Gulf Oil terminals. Here, petroleum, natural gas, and other petrochemicals are stored before being transported to their final destinations. The southeastern waterfront is also a designated port area for commercial shipping.
On the western side of the floodplain is the New England Produce Center, a massive regional hub for food distribution, as well as a major employer.
“Our waterfront has been industrial for 200 years and will continue to be industrial. But we’re very concerned that industry and flooding aren’t compatible,” says Karl Allen, a planner in Chelsea’s Department of Housing and Community Development who worked with Woodwell on the analysis.
Affordable housing is also at risk. Much of the city’s affordable housing was built in the 50’s and 60’s in the lowest-lying areas of the city, where marshes were filled in to create land for their construction. These communities are already familiar with bearing the burden of environmental damages— a rail line bisects the city through a designated environmental justice corridor. At only a few feet above sea level, the rail line serves as a major inundation pathway. Without adaptation measures, climate change will hit these lower income areas hardest.
“I can say that the one thing that’s been very common for municipal and state agencies is a sense of moving goalposts,” says John Walkey, the Director of Waterfront and Climate Justice Initiatives for GreenRoots. GreenRoots is a community organization dedicated to improving urban environmental and public health in Chelsea. Walkey and Greenroots facilitated the collaboration between Woodwell and the city.
“We are now at the stage where climate processes are moving faster than our bureaucracy can,” said Walkey. That could have been a paralyzing realization, especially backed up with analysis results outlining the intensity of increased flooding. Instead, the City’s planning leaders have decided to confront the floodwaters head on, using the analysis to change the way they think about implementing routine infrastructure updates.
Of course, Water doesn’t care where one municipality begins or ends; it will flow into any accessible space. The success of Chelsea’s adaptation measures will depend on collaboration with nearby localities— Everett, Revere, Boston. For example, there are plans in the works to construct a flood defense between Chelsea and nearby Everett that sits across the Island End River. Both cities hope this landscaped wall will protect the area from major flooding until at least 2070.
Having a thorough flood risk analysis also puts the city in a good position to lobby for adaptation on a larger scale. In mid-April, Woodwell and Chelsea hosted a briefing for the offices of Massachusetts Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley on the results of the flood analysis and the regional security issue it represents.
“Chelsea is facing a severe threat from climate change over the course of the next 50 years,” said Chelsea City Manager, Tom Ambrosino during the briefing. “So we are working hard to try to be prepared for it. But a lot of these projects are beyond our immediate capability.”
There are hundreds of Chelseas across the United States facing similar, and increasingly urgent, threats from flooding, drought, heat, or extreme weather. Many communities are scrambling to adapt as disasters hit, without knowing how much more change is on the horizon. Replicating climate risk analyses like the one in Chelsea could help them get a more specific picture of what they are facing.
“When you tell people well, ‘you’ve got to design for conditions in 2070’, they say ‘what does that mean? What kind of storm are we designing for?” says Allen. “This analysis has given us a better understanding of what kind of disasters we’ll be looking at, and with what frequency, so we have a design target.”
Risk analyses are invaluable to a municipality’s ability to plan for the shifting goalposts of climate change. Yet the availability of these analyses is uneven. Cities with more resources are able to pay private companies for risk assessments, while non-profits like Woodwell work to fill in the gaps. The Center has already partnered with 14 communities in the U.S. and abroad to produce tailored analyses. But there are nearly 20 thousand municipalities in the U.S. alone. Each will experience their own unique version of climate change.
“It really highlights the need for a national climate service,” said Woodwell Research Associate Dominick Dusseau who worked on the analysis for Chelsea, “something that can provide a nationwide standard service, rather than a piecemeal thing.”
Woodwell’s analysis is a prototypical version of what could be possible with more uniform risk assessment services, as well as a model of successful community engagement. Woodwell will continue to grow its partnerships with individual cities, but the scope of climate change will require a larger, more coordinated response.
“We’re doing a lot, there’s just so much more to do,” says Dusseau.
In March, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission issued a draft ruling on the regulation of corporate climate risk disclosure. The ruling requires that corporations disclose relevant climate risks and greenhouse gas emissions associated with operations, as well as include climate-related metrics in audited financial statements.
Last year, during the drafting process, the SEC requested public comments on the proposed rule. Woodwell Climate Research Center and Wellington Management coordinated a response, pushing for transparent, thorough, and accurate climate risk assessments and disclosure.
The proposed rule is open for public comment until June 17, 2022, and Woodwell is once again working alongside Wellington Management to coordinate comments.
“The SEC has recognized the importance of climate risk to financial systems, and they are moving forward. This is excellent progress, but for these new rules to be effective they need to hear from climate scientists and climate risk experts,” said Woodwell’s Chief of External Affairs, Dave McGlinchey.
In order to be effective, risk disclosures need to be standardized and consistent between corporations. Additionally, transparency is important in the risk assessment process, to ensure corporations are using comparable, science-backed models to accurately report on risk.
“If the SEC doesn’t provide guidelines on how physical climate risk is assessed, the rules will be toothless and corporations will be able to pay for the results that they want. We are looking to avoid a race to the bottom,” McGlinchey said.
Springtime in the Northern hemisphere is a momentary respite for many places—a pause before the heat of summer and potential for drought and fire. This year, however, summer arrived early, bringing with it scorching temperatures and out-of-control fires that have made national and international headlines.
Portions of India and Pakistan already have experienced record-setting heat. Unseasonably warm weather began in March, when India recorded the hottest monthly temperatures that the country has seen in the past 122 years—hitting an average maximum of 33.1 degrees Celsius (91.6 Fahrenheit). The heatwave continued with the third hottest April on record. The hottest time for India is typically May and June, before the monsoon season begins.
In addition to the early start of summer temperatures, this heat wave is particularly concerning for its scope. The heat has settled over most of India as well as parts of neighboring Pakistan for two months.
“The most shocking part for me has been the geographical extent and the duration,” said Woodwell Assistant Scientist, Dr. Zach Zobel in an interview with CNBC.
The heat-related death toll in Maharashtra state, the second-most populous state in India, has already reached 25. Heat waves like this one become particularly dangerous when humidity is high—preventing the human body from cooling itself through sweat and evaporation.
Earlier and more intense heat waves also have the potential to disrupt India’s crop yields, particularly heat, which is vulnerable to hot, dry weather. As climate change progresses unchecked, extreme heat waves like this one will become more and more common.
On the other side of the globe, rising temperatures have resulted in a rash of destructive fires well before the usual summer season. The state of New Mexico is currently fighting 20 separate fires in 16 counties. Two, the Hermit’s Peak and Calf Canyon fires, recently merged into the state’s second-largest wildfire on record, which has been burning now for more than a month.
The merged “megafire” has destroyed at least 276 structures and forced the evacuation of nearly 13,000 residences.
New Mexico is used to a fire season that starts in May or June. Climate change is making out-of-season fires more common and big fires were seen this year in Colorado and California as early as December and January. The United Nations declared a global wildfire crisis in February.
Climate change is warming and drying out western U.S. states, increasing the number of “fire weather days.” This has made fire management harder, limiting the possible timeframe for prescribed burns that reduce fuel loads. Intense winds also played a large role in fanning the New Mexico fires, one of which began as a prescribed burn that escaped.
As temperatures rise, the risks from deadly heatwaves and wildfire are growing. Fire seasons and extreme heat seasons are lengthening, frequently starting earlier and ending later, giving the land no time to recover from dry winters or the prior year’s heat. The response to both the fires in New Mexico and heat in India and Pakistan is the same—rapidly reducing global emissions by 15% every year to hit the IPCC target of 1.5 degrees of warming.
“There is no question that heat waves are made worse by fossil fuels and climate change everywhere in the globe,” said Dr. Zobel. “India and Pakistan are two of the hottest places in the world and will likely continue to see heat waves of this magnitude and worse over the next several decades.”
Though droughts and bad harvest years are occasional risks for farmers, modern agriculture is built on the assumption of a predictable and stable climate. Rising temperatures are breaking down that assumption, leaving the future of food uncertain. Two new studies put the increasing risks in sharp relief.
Seventy-two percent of today’s staple crops—maize, wheat, soybeans and rice—are grown in just 5 countries, in regions of the world known as breadbaskets. From the plains of North America to the river valleys of India and China, these regions earned their distinction for supporting hundreds of years of agricultural production with their climatic suitability.
“These regions have developed this way for centuries in the same way that human settlements have developed around water, because that’s where the resource was,” says Woodwell Research Assistant, Monica Caparas.
Caparas works on agricultural risk models. Last year, she led an analysis of crop failures in global breadbaskets, projecting the likelihood of declining yields in the upcoming decades. Her results conjured a world where these centuries-old food producing regions may no longer be so reliable. By 2030, crop yield failures will be 4.5 times higher. By 2050, the likelihood shoots up to 25 times current rates.
By mid-century, the world could be facing a rice or wheat failure every other year, with the probability of soybean and maize failures even higher. A synchronized failure across all four crops becomes a possibility every 11 years.
If that sounds like rapid, drastic change, that’s because it is. The immediacy of increasing failures surprised even Caparas.
“The fact that by 2050—which we are almost halfway to already— there could be a wheat failure every year. It’s startling.”
One major component of crop failure predictions is water scarcity. In a warmer world, water is a critical resource. Climate change will shift precipitation patterns, drying out some regions and inundating others. Most of the world’s breadbaskets are headed in the drier direction.
Caparas factored water availability into her analysis, finding the likelihood of crop failure much higher in water scarce sections of breadbaskets. Wheat is especially water dependent, particularly in India where 97% of wheat crops are growing in areas already experiencing water stress. Irrigation could make up for some lack of rain, but groundwater stores are already overdrawn in many places.
In Brazil, agriculture is already showing signs of declining productivity from changing precipitation. Woodwell Assistant Scientist Dr. Ludmila Rattis works in Mato Grosso, where she researches the impacts of agriculture and deforestation on the regional climate. Central Brazil is a major breadbasket for soybeans and maize—as well as cattle— and as crop demand increases, farms and ranches have advanced into the Amazon rainforest and the Cerrado, the Brazilian Savanna.
Clearing and burning forests not only releases carbon that contributes to rising global temperatures, it can also have drying effects on the local watershed. In recent years, farmers in Mato Grosso and the Cerrado have reported issues with dry spells, though they would not attribute it to climate change. Dr. Rattis wanted to quantify these anecdotes to show that they were connected.
“I was trying to see why they were denying the climate changing at the same time they were feeling the climate changing. Were they feeling that in their pockets? Was it affecting the finance of their business?”
Dr. Rattis modeled temperature and precipitation changes along Brazil’s Amazon-Cerrado frontier. Her results not only predicted that by 2060, 74% of the region’s agricultural land would fall outside of the ideal range of suitability for rainfed agriculture, they showed that nearly a third of farms already did.
The changes are affecting crop productivity. When the temperature gets warmer, plants grow faster, releasing more water vapor into the air from their leaves as a byproduct of photosynthesis. If there isn’t a steady supply of soil moisture available to replace the lost water, plant growth is stunted. Rainy seasons are also starting later, limiting the possibility for planting two rounds of crops in a single season, which cuts into farmer’s profits and encourages further expansion via land clearing.
Caparas notes that increasing crop failure doesn’t necessarily mean we are headed for a world without maize or soybean. But it does mean a drastically different agricultural system— one where hard decisions have to be made about land use.
“Increasing crop failures doesn’t mean that these crops won’t ever be able to grow in these areas again, or that they should be abandoned, just that it’s going to be much harder for them to be as productive,” Capraras says. “There might be a certain threshold of losses that would lead people to leave these croplands.”
There is some potential for migration of the most productive lands as northern latitudes begin to warm. Caparas’s projections showed the greatest likelihood of breadbasket migration from the United States into Canada.
However, just because the climate suitability is migrating, doesn’t mean agricultural production will shift along with it. Other factors including soil fertility or existing land uses could limit the practicality of moving to new regions, especially if it jeopardizes existing climate solutions as the case in Brazil has shown. Clearing forests is only accelerating warming, drought and declining productivity.
Shoring up food security in a changing climate will require system-wide changes to our current agricultural system. Part of that starts with adjusting farming strategies to mitigate the effects of the warming that’s already unavoidable. Dr. Rattis has begun outreach to the farmers whose land she collected data on, giving them a picture of what their farms will look like if nothing changes.
“We need to make them feel that they’re part of the research, because they are. If we do, once we get the results, the probability of them using those results to adapt the way that they produce food will increase,” Dr. Rattis says. “They can see themselves in the historic part of the graphic and then I show them where, climatically speaking, their farm is going,”
She’s hoping these conversations will open Brazil’s farmers up to practices that leave more native vegetation on the landscape, which would help stabilize the local climate and keep the natural watershed intact.
Caparas takes hope from the fact that the outcomes of her models are not set in stone. In the planet-wide experiment of climate change, we can affect the results.
“These projections are due to changes in climate. They don’t account for adaptation strategies. The agricultural technology industry is fast-growing and so I think that there is hope, as long as adaptation techniques are implemented equitably,” Caparas says.
Much of the innovation, Caparas says, will have to involve developing drought resistant crop varieties and less water intensive agricultural processes. In the long term however, securing a productive agricultural future for the Earth’s nearly 10 billion people by 2050 will depend on securing a stable climate.
“First and foremost it always has to be getting climate change in check,” says Caparas.