Experts advise ‘bounce forward’ on climate change

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A woman stands on a stage and speaks.
Laura Lengnick, a soil scientist who contributed to the third National Climate Assessment report, gives her keynote presentation at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association annual conference Feb. 14 in Dayton, Ohio. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

DAYTON, Ohio — In 2019, the United States racked up $14 billion dollars in weather-related disasters, according to Aaron Wilson, atmospheric scientist with Ohio State.

These disasters ranged from wildfires in California, to hailstorms in Texas and Colorado, to tornadoes and hurricanes, to flooding and severe weather in areas including the Midwest.

With scientists suggesting that 2019’s weather could be the new normal, the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association decided to center its annual conference Feb. 13-15 around climate change.

Weather and climate are not exactly the same thing. Wilson compares weather to a dog on a leash, and climate to the dog walker. The dog can roam up and down, but it still moves in the same overall direction that the dog walker is steadily traveling in.

Climate, however, affects the weather that we experience, both in terms of extreme events, and day-to-day, gradual changes.

Laura Lengnick, a soil scientist who contributed to the third National Climate Assessment report, and one of the keynote speakers for the conference, advised farmers and land owners in a workshop Feb. 14 to view climate change as a new situation to deal with.

“Think about it as a risk that is something you can manage on your land,” she said.

While farmers who have already bought land can’t control how much it rains around them, they can work to improve their resilience to new conditions.

Resilience, Lengnick said in her keynote address, is about more than bouncing back from difficult events. It’s about responding, recovering and changing.

Resources

Lengnick said farmers can begin to address climate concerns by looking at how their area has been affected over the years. Then, farmers can start building resources in several areas.

“You’re not going to get a silver bullet from me today. There’s not one thing you can do,” Lengnick said.

To deal with some disasters, farmers may need access to insurance or money to repair damage or minimize losses. For other problems, having solid infrastructure or healthy soil may prevent some damage or help the land recover.

In a Feb. 13 workshop, Alan Sundermeier, of Ohio State Extension, noted that floods have consequences for soil, but there are things farmers can do to help their soil handle those extreme conditions. Using cover crops, so that soil always has roots and some cover, and minimizing disturbances, by limiting or eliminating tillage, can help protect soil.

But farmers should also keep track of their soil health, measuring things like the soil’s organic matter, to make sure their practices are working, Sundermeier said.

“We want to have some kind of measurements to know that if we’re doing the same things over and over again, are we improving what we’re doing or not?” Sundermeier said.

Change

Farmers also need to adjust their operations to address new conditions, recognizing when something is no longer working for the conditions they face. This includes infrastructure and management practices.

“[Resilience thinking] makes no assumptions that the climate will be stable,” Lengnick said.

She called the idea of transforming to face challenges a “bounce forward” rather than a “bounce back.”

“I think the ‘bounce forward’ idea gives us a lot of power to shape our future,” she said. “We know that we’re going to have damage, and at that point, we’re going to have to recover. We choose every time we have to recover whether we’re going to choose a bounce back to 20th century standards or a bounce forward to 21st century standards.”

Human

Farmers can also improve their own abilities to deal with change and stress, and build social networks to help them deal with these challenges, Lengnick said.

“I can’t say enough about this ability to cope with loss and with change … the people are important in all of this,” Lengnick said.

Making plans

Lengnick also said that having an extreme events plan to deal with major crop losses and damage is important.

While some of the changes are more subtle — warmer winters and nights, for example — the changing climate also brings a higher risk of extreme events, as Wilson noted.

As Ohio sees more extreme rainfall events, with about 45 events with at least one inch of rainfall in the five-year period from 2010-2014, Wilson said the area is under a persistent flood risk. Extreme rainfall has environmental implications. For example, it can increase nutrient runoff into Lake Erie, which can contribute to harmful algal blooms.

One area in Darke County got 5.5 inches of rain in two hours in 2017, flooding highways. Wilson said our infrastructure is largely not built for this kind of rain, and in these extreme cases, it’s hard for farmers to prevent runoff.

“How do we do that? … This is part of the conversation that I think actually needs more attention than just pointing fingers and blame back and forth between urban and rural areas,” Wilson said. “We all have a part in this, but climate is making it harder.”

Crops

Crops are heavily affected by changing weather and climate, Rafiq Islam, an Ohio State soil and bioenergy program leader, said in a Feb. 13 workshop. Weather and climate cause 96% of crop failure.

In addition, the grain belt is shifting north, allowing Canadian farmers to start producing corn, Islam said, whereas 25 years ago, there was almost no corn grown in Canada. Wilson said by the end of the century, Ohio’s climate may be closer to Arkansas in the summer and the Carolinas in the winter.

“So are we growing the things that we’re going to be growing in 30, 40, 60, 80 years?” Wilson asked.

Future

The climate and weather predictions start to get “scary” by the end of the 21st century, Wilson said, but it’s hard to know exactly what will happen.

“Forecasting weather … is very difficult. Forecasting human behavior is more difficult … All of these are dependent on decisions we make, and if we’re not having conversations, we can’t make decisions,” Wilson said.

“We really need to give up the idea … that we can create optimal conditions and that we would plan a business based on the assumption that we can create optimal conditions,” Lengnick said.

Because climate change affects different regions in different ways, regional resources, place-based knowledge and regional relationships can be useful in addition to expert knowledge.

To adjust to variable conditions, Lengnick suggested that farmers can focus on ecological designs and robust systems.

“It turns out that nature is incredibly resilient,” she said.

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