LONDON, Ohio — Few farmers will say they have not been affected by the weather this year.
Ohio State atmospheric scientist Aaron Wilson wrapped up a Sept. 17 Farm Science Review talk on climate and weather, with a provocative question: “What if I told you this is our new normal?”
With very wet conditions in the spring this year, many farmers planted late or were unable to plant. In parts of southwestern Ohio, temperatures went from very wet to very dry over the summer. Now, heading into fall, it’s starting to get wetter again.
Wilson said the trend didn’t just start this spring. Fall 2018 was the third wettest on record since 1895, with 20-25 inches of rainfall in some areas. Some farmers had to wait until the ground froze to harvest because of the saturation.
Wilson said the current trends of more rain in the spring and less in the summer fit in with the long-term trends he and other scientists predict.
“This is already happening,” Wilson said. “Climate isn’t a future problem; it’s here.”
Over the last 130 years, five of the top 10 wettest years have occurred since 2003. Wilson said spring precipitation has gone up by 3-11% since 1970. Farmers have lost 10 suitable fieldwork days since 1995, five of them in April and five in October.
Temperatures have also changed, Wilson said. Globally, 2018 was the fourth warmest year since 1880, with nine out of the top 10 globally warmest years occurring since 2005.
2018 had the ninth coldest April on record and the warmest May on record. Wilson said averaging these two months would show that temperatures were normal in spring 2018, but the extreme differences in temperature from month to month are not normal.
“That’s an average spring, but that’s not a normal spring,” Wilson said.
While temperatures in 2019 so far have been colder than average in the United States, Wilson said this is the second warmest year on record globally.
“What’s happening here in the U.S. doesn’t describe what’s happening across the entire surface of the earth at any one time,” Wilson explained.
Wilson said over the last 100 years, temperatures have gone up for much of the United States, with an approximate 1-2 degree increase in Ohio.
“It’s nothing on a weather scale, but it’s huge on a climate scale,” Wilson said. “It’s much more land surface covered by warmer temperatures.”
The changing temperatures are causing growing zones to shift, Wilson said. The rain also increases the risk of flooding in Ohio.
By the mid-21st century, scientists expect temperatures to increase by 4-5 degrees on average, with most of the change coming during the winter months and at night. They also expect precipitation to increase by 3-5 inches on average.
The changing climate has also shifted the freeze date back by five to seven days, Wilson said.
Wilson thinks we will not see an early freeze in September this year. While there may be some risk in the first week of October, he said 50% of the time in northwest Ohio, the first freeze happens by Oct. 10, though it can be a little later in other areas.
For 2019 heading into 2020, Wilson said November through January may be cooler than average, but have closer to average precipitation, based on what has happened in past years with similar springs, summers and falls.
If this is the new normal, Wilson said people in Ohio should start thinking about how to adjust. He suggested that cover crops, drainage structures and tillage practices could help mitigate flood risks. He also noted soil and water health will become bigger issues with the increased rain.
By the end of the century, Wilson said Ohio’s climate could look more like Virginia in the winter and Arkansas in the summer. It has already shifted to be similar to south-central Indiana, and could look like southern Missouri by the mid-21st century.
“They don’t farm exactly like we do in Ohio,” Wilson said. “There are things that we can learn and build resilience through.”
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