NASA Warns: Global Climate Change Impact on Crops Expected Within 10 Years

This color-coded map in Robinson projection displays a progression of changing global surface temperature anomalies. Normal temperatures are the average over the 30 year baseline period 1951-1980. Higher than normal temperatures are shown in red and lower than normal temperatures are shown in blue. The final frame represents the 5 year global temperature anomalies from 2016-2020. Scale in degrees Celsius. Credit: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio, Data provided by Robert B. Schmunk (NASA/GSFC GISS)

Climate change may affect the production of maize (corn) and wheat as early as 2030 under a high greenhouse gas emissions scenario, according to a new NASA study published in the journal, Nature Food. Maize crop yields are projected to decline 24%, while wheat could potentially see growth of about 17%.

Using advanced climate and agricultural models, scientists found that the change in yields is due to projected increases in temperature, shifts in rainfall patterns, and elevated surface carbon dioxide concentrations from human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. These changes would make it more difficult to grow maize in the tropics, but could expand wheat’s growing range.

“We did not expect to see such a fundamental shift, as compared to crop yield projections from the previous generation of climate and crop models conducted in 2014,” said lead author Jonas Jägermeyr, a crop modeler and climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) and The Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York City. The projected maize response was surprisingly large and negative, he said. “A 20% decrease from current production levels could have severe implications worldwide.”

Average global crop yields for maize, or corn, may see a decrease of 24% by late century, with the declines becoming apparent by 2030, with high greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new NASA study. Wheat, in contrast, may see an uptick in crop yields by about 17%. The change in yields is due to the projected increases in temperature, shifts in rainfall patterns and elevated surface carbon dioxide concentrations due to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, making it more difficult to grow maize in the tropics and expanding wheat’s growing range. Credit: NASA/Katy Mersmann

To arrive at their projections, the research team used two sets of models. First, they used climate model simulations from the international Climate Model Intercomparison Project-Phase 6 (CMIP6). Each of the five CMIP6 climate models used for this study runs its own unique response of Earth’s atmosphere to greenhouse gas emission scenarios through 2100. These responses differ somewhat due to variations in their representations of the Earth’s climate system.

Then the research team used the climate model simulations as inputs for 12 state-of-the-art global crop models that are part of the Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project (AgMIP), an international partnership coordinated by Columbia University. The crop models simulate on a large scale how crops grow and respond to environmental conditions such as temperature, rainfall and atmospheric carbon dioxide, which are provided by the climate models. Each crop species’ behavior is based on their real life biological responses studied in indoor and outdoor lab experiments. In the end, the team created about 240 global climate-crop model simulations for each crop. By using multiple climate and crop models in various combinations, the researchers were more confident in their results.

“What we’re doing is driving crop simulations that are effectively growing virtual crops day-by-day, powered by a supercomputer, and then looking at the year-by-year and decade-by-decade change in each location of the world,” said Alex Ruane, co-director of the GISS Climate Impacts Group and a co-author of the study.

This study focused on climate change impacts. These models do not address economic incentives, changing farming practices, and adaptations such as breeding hardier crop varieties, although that is an area of active research. The research team plans to look at these angles in follow-up work, since these factors will also determine the fate of agricultural yields in the future as people respond to climate-driven changes.

The team looked at changes to long-term average crop yields and introduced a new estimate for when climate change impacts “emerge” as a discernable signal from the usual, historically known variability in crop yields. Soybean and rice projections showed a decline in some regions but at the global scale the different models still disagree on the overall impacts from climate change. For maize and wheat, the climate effect was much clearer, with most of the model results pointing in the same direction.

Maize, or corn, is grown all over the world, and large quantities are produced in countries nearer the equator. North and Central America, West Africa, Central Asia, Brazil, and China will potentially see their maize yields decline in the coming years and beyond as average temperatures rise across these breadbasket regions, putting more stress on the plants.

Wheat, which grows best in temperate climates, may see a broader area where it can be grown as temperatures rise, including the Northern United States and Canada, North China Plains, Central Asia, Southern Australia, and East Africa, but these gains may level off mid-century.

Temperature is not the only factor the models consider when simulating future crop yields. Higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have a positive effect on photosynthesis and water retention, increasing crop yields, though often at a cost to nutrition. This effect happens more so for wheat than maize, which is more accurately captured in the current generation of models. Rising global temperatures also are linked with changes in rainfall patterns, and the frequency and duration of heat waves and droughts, which can affect crop health and productivity. Higher temperatures also affect the length of growing seasons and accelerate crop maturity.

“You can think of plants as collecting sunlight over the course of the growing season,” said Ruane. “They’re collecting that energy and then putting it into the plant and the grain. So, if you rush through your growth stages, by the end of the season, you just haven’t collected as much energy.” As a result, the plant produces less total grain than it would with a longer development period. “By growing faster, your yield actually goes down.”

“Even under optimistic climate change scenarios, where societies enact ambitious efforts to limit global temperature rise, global agriculture is facing a new climate reality,” Jägermeyr said. “And with the interconnectedness of the global food system, impacts in even one region’s breadbasket will be felt worldwide.”

Reference: “Climate impacts on global agriculture emerge earlier in new generation of climate and crop models” by Jonas Jägermeyr, Christoph Müller, Alex C. Ruane, Joshua Elliott, Juraj Balkovic, Oscar Castillo, Babacar Faye, Ian Foster, Christian Folberth, James A. Franke, Kathrin Fuchs, Jose R. Guarin, Jens Heinke, Gerrit Hoogenboom, Toshichika Iizumi, Atul K. Jain, David Kelly, Nikolay Khabarov, Stefan Lange, Tzu-Shun Lin, Wenfeng Liu, Oleksandr Mialyk, Sara Minoli, Elisabeth J. Moyer, Masashi Okada, Meridel Phillips, Cheryl Porter, Sam S. Rabin, Clemens Scheer, Julia M. Schneider, Joep F. Schyns, Rastislav Skalsky, Andrew Smerald, Tommaso Stella, Haynes Stephens, Heidi Webber, Florian Zabel and Cynthia Rosenzweig, 1 November 2021, Nature Food.
DOI: 10.1038/s43016-021-00400-y

4 Comments on "NASA Warns: Global Climate Change Impact on Crops Expected Within 10 Years"

  1. That’ll be a “HEATH Robinson” projection then?

  2. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich, with his wife, wrote the book The Population Bomb. It predicted massive famines in the 1970s and ’80s. Obviously, it did not happen! Nor have any of the similar catastrophic predictions made since then. It would be instructive to read this:

    The CMIP5 predictions were generally acknowledged to be running warm, particularly the most extreme scenario, known as RCP 8.5, which has been challenged as being improbable, rather than ‘business as usual.’ CMIP6 is running even warmer! This article does not mention the quantitative probabilities of the various scenarios representing possible future emissions. It instead uses imprecise words such as “likely” and “may.” So much for “Follow the science!” Real science would assign numeric values to the probabilities, along with the associated uncertainties. Whenever major election polls are presented to the public, they not only give their best estimate of the probability of a candidate winning, but they state the “margin of error” in the estimate. Why can’t NASA GISS do that as well?

    One of the major problems with these claims is that while plant growth can be inhibited by very high temperatures, the hot-running model (CMIP6) provides AVERAGE regional temperatures. Most of the warming that impacts the global averages occurs at night and in the Winter, when corn isn’t growing. Not all regions are warming at the same rate, and the regional predictions of precipitation have notoriously been the worst, with contradictory predictions.

    I think that the fable about “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” should be taken to heart by those who don’t even have the courage of their convictions to assign numbers to their modeling, and rely on ‘weasel words’ more appropriate to a politician making promises they have no intention of delivering on.

  3. Interesting that NASA does not consider rice an important crop nor what the loss of the Himalayan glaciers will do for those who need clean potable water nor for that matter what seal-level rise will do for rice-growing areas such as the Mekong Delta.

    • The rate of change of sea level is about 2 to 3 mm per year — about 1/10th of an inch. As deltas are want to do, the Mekong Delta is subsiding from the weight of the sediments deposited by the river, and at a higher rate than sea level change. Incidentally, that same sediment, from all rivers, contributes to sea level rise. My guess is that changes in land-use that increase erosion probably contribute as much or more to sea level rise as increasing temperature does.

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