Environment, Education, Energy: Policy to People

Record Drought Gives Oklahoma Wheat Farmers a Glimpse of the Future


Nic McPhee / Flickr

All the recent wet weather wiped out the drought in western Oklahoma, but climate scientists say farmers in the region should get ready for more hotter, drier days in the future.

StateImpact visited the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Grazinglands Research Laboratory in El Reno in May 2014, where Director Jean Steiner is helping farmers learn to adapt to a changing climate.

“If you work on agricultural production in the Great Plains, I think you’re going to have to have a strong climate focus at some point in time,” Steiner said, adding that Oklahoma is the perfect place to do research on the relationship between climate and crops and livestock.

And as The Oklahoman‘s Silas Allen reports, scientists turned the four-year drought into an opportunity to study what the future might be like for the state’s wheat farmers:

The upside, if there is one, is that it’s also given state wheat researchers a glimpse of the kinds of conditions climate change could bring to Oklahoma.

… Researchers are working to develop strains of wheat that would be better able to cope with conditions that scientists predict the state could see by mid-century.

Oklahoma State University professor Brett Carver focuses on wheat breeding and genetics. He told the paper his team is trying to get wheat plants to produce more grain in a shorter period of time.

Carver and his team are working to develop strains of wheat that would produce grain late enough in the season that they wouldn’t be vulnerable to late-season freezes, but early enough that they reach maturity by early June, before the summer heat begins.

…Vara Prasad, a professor of crop ecophysiology at Kansas State University, said rising temperatures shorten the window of time that wheat plants have to mature. That means plants have less time to produce grain, resulting in less grain per plant, he said.

Allen reports it could be another decade before these drought and freeze resistant strains of wheat hit the market. Months like May 2015 — the wettest month in Oklahoma history — do give researchers, and farmers, more time to adapt.

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  • Jack Wolf

    Farmers will have to adapt to all the extremes, whether its heat or chill, wet or dry. That is why research into fossil fuel driven climate change must continue in spite of the cuts proposed by the GOP. Otherwise, they will be working blind.

  • g_soros

    There is absolutely no basis for predicting increased extreme or severe weather.
    No matter if it is a cold or warm period; you can find any weather extreme you want to find at any time.

    Tornados are down since 1970.
    Hurricanes From 1851 through 2010 hurricanes are down.
    Hurricanes have decreased from the 1851 to 2010 rate since
    Droughts and floods are not different than usual.
    In the Northern Hemisphere, snow is up.
    Precipitation has increased since 1950.

    Nutt et al. in their 2007 study of the Great Barrier Reef found that there were fewer hurricanes in the warm 1800-2000 period than during the Little Ice Age years of 1600-1800.
    Nutt et al. also found that only 1 hurricane from 1800 to 2000 was as powerful as 7 hurricanes in the cooler Little Ice Age years of 1600-1800.
    This is far from conclusive data for predictions involving the entire planet.

    Weather is weather.

    • Jesse_Fell

      Are you really sure about all that? Precipitation has increased in some places, and decreased in others; the drought in California is different “than” usual. There has been more snow in some parts of the Northern hemisphere. All of the above is exactly what the computer models predicted.

      As for hurricanes, Kerry Emmanuel of MIT, the world’s top hurricane scientist, has long predicted that hurricanes would become less frequent, but that those that do occur will more often reach the strongest categories.

      • g_soros

        Jesse, tree ring studies from California trees do show droughts as long and longer than what CA is experiencing now.
        Mr. Emmanuel has made a prediction that hasn’t yet been supported by observation in our lifetime. Quite the opposite. Less frequent, less powerful hurricanes are occurring.
        How long has the world’s top hurricane scientist been making this prediction. Don’t say 18 years, please.
        Predictions are not scientific evidence,
        I won’t claim that Nutt et al are the last word. It is just another study and more has to be done.
        Predictions and Sudoko are pleasant ways to pass the time, nothing more, and predictions that are proven wrong by time look terrible.

        • Jesse_Fell

          g_soros, Kerry Emmanuel in fact predicted less frequent hurricanes, so he was right about that. He also predicts that the hurricanes that do occur will be more powerful. The hurricane season of Katrina certainly fulfilled that prediction.

          It is also true, as you suggest, that extreme weather patterns such as droughts have occurred in the past. But when extreme weather events start to occur frequently, you look for a cause. You can throw snake eyes 2 or 3 times in a row and attribute it to chance. But when you keep throwing snake eyes, you rightly suspect that the dice are loaded. We have loaded the climate dice by jacking up the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

  • Robert W

    For at least the next 15 years while the PDO is negative and La Ninas are more common, there WILL be a slightly higher chance for droughts in the central plains.

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