The Deep Freeze: Another Face of Climate Change

February 18, 2021

The power-grid problems that plague Texas could become more common if, as expected, Arctic blasts like the current freeze across the country occur more frequently. Rolling blackouts have Austin residents huddling in blankets with 40-degree temperatures inside. All 254 Texas counties had winter storm warnings. Dallas recorded subzero temperatures and Austin reported record snowfall. Two-and-a-half million Texas customers are without power. Ice storms are heading to the Northeast. Five hundred Walmarts closed during the snap.

Cynics will say such frigid weather dumps cold water on the notion of global warming. But in reality, it’s a sign that the climate is changing. The polar vortex pressing down on two-thirds of the continental U.S. is a result of warm air moving north and forcing the Arctic air down to the Mountain states, Great Plains, and Midwest.

Atmospheric waves periodically disrupt the polar vortex, which exists 15 miles above the Arctic, and send snowstorms or frigid blasts to the south. Such disruptions, which can occur naturally, are becoming more frequent. Arctic warming and the loss of sea ice could make the vortex more vulnerable to disruptions.

This is one of the biggest and longest vortexes since scientists began taking note almost 70 years ago. What once was a sporadic phenomenon occurring maybe every other year, may now occur more than once in a single winter. The current disruption is so expansive that Europe has also been affected – the Acropolis in Greece is covered in snow. Temperatures in Oklahoma and Texas were lower this week than some places in Alaska, Greenland, Norway, and Sweden. Meanwhile, Florida has been unusually warm.

Disruptions are the key word when describing the current climate – and not just in winter. In warmer months, rain is less steady and predictable than in the past, with sporadic very-heavy rains instead of the regular soaking rains that farmers depended on for their crops. Periods of drought often fall between today’s drenching storms.

Many farmers may have questioned the role of humans in climate change, but they always have been at the forefront in experiencing extreme weather and the long-term change in patterns. Persistent autumn rains have delayed some harvests into January, followed a few months later by wet spring weather that delayed planting until late June. Growing seasons have brought as much as four inches of rain in an hour, followed by weeks of drought – or a derecho like the storm, with winds over 100 mph, that severely damaged 40 percent of Iowa’s corn crop last summer.

Debate on the cause of these events is wasted energy and the science behind what is happening is irrefutable. Right now, farmers and others are focusing on how we prepare for and adapt to the changes that are already overturning plans and threatening the economic viability of their operations. In some ways, farmers have laid the groundwork for change without even thinking about the climate. No-till and reduced-tillage farming have been on the increase for 40 years as ways to reduce soil erosion and retain nutrients. Today those practices – along with cover crops, 4R nutrient management, and other tools – are considered “climate smart” methods that can improve resilience and also sequester carbon in the soil.

Farmers and ranchers in the West face particular climate challenges from reduced snowpack in the mountains. That snowmelt is what fills the rivers that sustains farms, ranches, and cities. Warmer weather may mean less snow, or that that the snow melts too soon to nurture the growing season for crops or sustain herds through the year. To prepare for the range of possibilities, western agriculture needs modernized water infrastructure.

And all farms – large and small, livestock or crops, across the U.S. or around the world – need help adopting climate smart agriculture systems and practices that benefit produces and the planet. Leading farmers have been sharing ideas, trying new things and improving old methods. Agriculture organizations and companies have been adapting what works in one location at one scale and applying it to different crops or different continents.

In 21st Century Agriculture Renaissance: Solutions from the Land, Solutions from the Land collaborating partners show how these efforts are part of a broad, farmer-driven approach that can shape a global agriculture renaissance – one that can adapt to and mitigate climate change, strengthen the economies of farms and rural communities, and feed a growing world population.

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