Weather-Related Disasters Underscore Need for Integrated Land Management Systems

September 17, 2020

As Hurricane Sally came out of the Gulf of Mexico and slammed into Alabama and the Florida Panhandle this week, she brought with her sustained tropical-storm winds in excess of 100 mph and flooding from torrential rains that reached at least 30 inches, leaving more than 470,000 residents without power and killing one.

Unfortunately, Sally is the latest in a year that has already seen a record-breaking seven named storms make landfall in the continental United States before September, and her arrival represents the second-most active Atlantic hurricane season on record (the season ends Nov. 30). Hurricane Sally is now adding to the nearly 120 deaths and $1.5 billion in damages left so far by the 21 total tropical storms recorded thus far this year.

Meanwhile, wildfires continue to rage in California, Oregon and Washington state, leaving more than five million acres charred to date, tens of thousands of people displaced and at least 27 people dead and dozens more missing. Smoke from the flames threaten the health of people in areas hundreds of miles away.

And in Iowa in last month, a derecho – widespread, destructive straight-line winds of up to 140 mph – blew across 57 counties, resulting in damages to an estimated 8.2 million acres of corn and 5.6 million acres of soybeans. According to the Department of Agriculture, 550,000 acres of corn in Iowa alone may remain in the field or be designated as destroyed due to damages this season. At 770 miles long by nearly 100 miles wide, the derecho, an extremely rare weather event with a name that is Spanish for “straight ahead,” resulted in the state’s agriculture sector sustaining huge losses at a time when many farmers were already dealing with drought.

In a conference call earlier this month among member of the Iowa Smart Agriculture Work Group, which is sponsored jointly by SfL and the Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, participants observed that the field of attribution science does not really hold any one weather event as a direct example of the effects of climate change.

However, the fact that the Midwest has sustained three notable derechos this year, an increase in the volume of all rain events, and what is being seen as the growing proliferation of lengthy “all-or-nothing” transitions between wet and dry conditions (members cite the fact that half of the total summer precipitation in another Midwest state, Illinois, fell in a single event in July), can be taken as concerning signs of what a “new normal” could look like.

To reinforce the prospects of harsh conditions ahead, a subcommittee of the federal Commodity Futures Trading Commission issued a report last week warning that climate change is a significant threat to U.S. financial markets. The escalating opportunity and repair costs of wildfires, storms, droughts and floods are growing in impact as they spread through insurance and mortgage markets, pension funds and other financial institutions.

The USDA also recognizes the risks posed, recently issuing a report – Climate Indicators for Agriculture – that presents 20 indicators of climate change the department says were “carefully selected to provide useful and relevant information across a range of important agricultural production systems in the United States.” The indicators represent an overall view of how climate change is influencing U.S. agriculture. Individually, department officials say, they may provide useful information for supporting specific management decisions in the face of possible climate disruptions.

The Iowa work group members observed that growers who made the choice to invest in resilient practices prior to the weather-related blows are grateful for their proactivity, though they even now feel like “it’s a race to keep up.”

One phenomenon observed by work group members was that in some fields, corn was left standing, while all around, neighboring fields were flattened. The group agreed that the success of those crops could potentially be related to conservation practices being used in those fields over time (more moisture retained in soils, better root systems). Iowa State University and the Iowa Soybean Association are getting involved, taking samples to determine if those crops that fared better are an example of resilience in action.

The work group also noted that as climate models predicted – and continue to predict – the weather will continue to trend more extreme. It’s a reality that calls for much more rigorous attention be paid to the capacity of soil to absorb and retain moisture to compensate for unpredictable or intense precipitation.

These disasters – torrential winds and rain, drought and wildfires – all represent a wake-up call to create a path forward that incorporates the high-cost lessons the agricultural sector is continuing to learn. They present an opportunity to develop a wide range of remedies – water management and tillage practices, for example – that can help lands adapt, improve resilience and simultaneously deliver high value agroecosystem services.

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