How Many More Dorians Do We Need Before Scaling Up Climate Smart Agriculture Programing?

September 5, 2019

With maximum sustained winds of 185 miles per hour at landfall in the Bahamas this week, Hurricane Dorian tied with the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 (before hurricanes were designated by names) as being the strongest land falling Atlantic hurricane on record.

While listed at its peak as a Category 5 hurricane when it devastated the Bahamas and killed at least 20, Dorian, as of this writing, is a Category 3, carrying sustained winds of more than 100 mph and heavy rains as it makes its way slowly up the coast past South Carolina. The vicious storm is flooding roads, spawning tornadoes and knocking out power lines, and is now headed for North Carolina after running along the East Florida and Georgia coasts.

Dorian is the latest in a string of exceedingly strong hurricanes that have developed in recent years. Prominent meteorologist Jeff Berardelli said in a segment this week on National Public Radio that over the past 169 years of record-keeping, only 35 Category 5 hurricanes have been reported in the Atlantic basin, suggesting a 20-percent chance of any Category 5 hurricane occurring in any year. However, that rate of occurrence has been crushed over the past four years when five Category 5 hurricanes have formed.

A Category 5 hurricane generally has winds that are 2.5 times greater than those generated by a Category 1 hurricane, which generates winds around 75 mph. But research shows that the damages associated with Category 5 storms run an astonishing 1,000 times or more greater than those resulting from the lowest category hurricane.

Many who suffer the more serious consequences of damaging winds, heavy rains, flooding and other hurricane-related destruction are farmers and ranchers who are becoming increasingly vulnerable to the vagaries of a changing climate.

The damages being incurred along the U.S. southern coast and inlands this week are the latest in a string of weather-related disasters in 2019 that have seriously harmed U.S. agriculture, varying from torrential rains and flooding in the Midwest, to widespread wildfires that have seriously damaged wide tracts of forestlands in the western United States.

Hurricane Dorian offers another reminder of the critical need for resiliency actions and adaptive management of our working farmlands and forestlands. It’s a requisite that is being better understood as the storm progresses towards North Carolina, where the SfL-supported North Carolina Agriculture and Forestry Adaptation Work Group (NC-ADAPT) explored the impacts of increasingly extreme weather events and changing climatic conditions on the state’s agricultural and forestry sectors.

The Work Group – comprised of leading state farm and livestock operators, and key forestland owners – constructed a set of adaptive management practices and recommendations to improve agriculture and forestry resiliency and further enhance the economic viability of these sectors for decades to come.

Recently underway is the work of a Florida Climate Smart Agriculture Work Group (FL-CSA), where some of the state’s top agricultural, forestry, business, academic, government and conservation leaders are looking at the natural resource protections farmers, ranchers and foresters can provide, in addition to the production of food, feed, fiber and energy. The Work Group is developing a plan for how the state’s 26 million acres of agricultural and forestry lands can adapt to changing conditions, while advancing practices and policies that can build a healthier, more resilient food system in the face of growing climate challenges.

The USDA Southeast Climate Hub, a member of the FL-CSA Work Group, has consolidated various informational resources at its website to help agriculture, aquaculture and forest producers prepare for and recover from potential hurricane impacts. Many of these resources will be compiled into a comprehensive technical manual set for publication in early 2020. This manual is one example of the type of resource that producers can utilize to increase resiliency and better adapt their operations to increased threats.

The weather-related events of this week are the latest in an ongoing history of growing disruptions in our climate patterns. Whether you call it “climate change” or not, the volatility of weather patterns across the U.S. are real and growing in consequence. It is important for stakeholders to reach out to policy makers and call on them to support climate smart agriculture systems and practices.

Those could include, among others:

  • A “carbon farming” initiative – to reward farmers for the environmental services they provide by removing carbon emissions from the atmosphere to build healthier soils or capturing methane within livestock operations.
  • A reform of crop insurance needs to account for climate risk in actuarial tables – to incentivize soil health and other conservation practices that guard America’s farmers and food supply against future floods, drought, and extreme weather events.
  • A threefold increase in funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program (to $3 billion annually) and expansion of other USDA programs – to promote implementation of climate smart agriculture practices.

Hurricane Dorian and the havoc it is wreaking is just another reminder of the urgency with which policy makers must move to combat the harmful effects of a changing climate. Farmers, ranchers and foresters are in a prime position to help in the fight.

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