May 14, 2019 -- Record-breaking floodwaters engulfed the plains of Nebraska in March. As-yet-untold crops, livestock, and farmlands were lost in the disaster. The Nebraska Department of Agriculture estimates that the value of the lost crops and livestock will surpass $800 million.Nebraska’s main crops include cattle, corn, soybeans, wheat, and dry beans. The state’s estimate of losses does not include the cost of lost livelihood to the many farmers who don’t know when they will be able to farm their land again.While the floodwaters in the Plains have begun to recede, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns that historic, widespread flooding, worsened by above-average snowfall and spring rain, will continue through May.The heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods that have become the norm in recent years have serious implications for the food supply:
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- Extreme heat, floods, and droughts can damage crops and make yields smaller.
- Warmer winters cause premature budding that leads to crop loss.
- Heat waves threaten livestock, too. Continued exposure to extreme heat can make animals more likely to get disease and cut fertility and milk production.
- Specific crops face specific dangers. A new study, for example, has found that climate change has helped to spread a fungus that could destroy 80% of banana crops.
- Higher rainfall from spikes in humidity in a warmer climate leads to loss of soil carbon, which is crucial for plants.
A Growing ChallengeU.S. famers have already been grappling with the uncertainty that has become the new normal when it comes to weather.That may mean planting as early in the year as possible in order to harvest before the heat waves of midsummer and the torrential downpours of the fall. A nationwide drought in 2012 that affected more than two-thirds of U.S. counties led the federal crop insurance program to make $14.5 billion in payments to farmers.
“It really is a great threat,” says Montana farmer Nate Powell-Palm.He lost his entire crop of garbanzo beans to a heat wave in 2017. “It was like 102 degrees during the flowering period, and the temperature stayed there for weeks,” he recalls. “Any crop that wasn’t planted super early was just decimated. These kinds of shocks can spiral farms into bankruptcy.”Powell-Palm took out a line of credit to tide him over till the next year. Luckily, the next year -- a good one -- he paid back the debt.“Young farmers like me, we’re terrified of debt,” he says. “Farming is enough of a risk just with the market prices, and now you start adding weather events to that.”The workaround for all this uncertainty, he says, is to plant crops as early in the year as possible. But spring is unpredictable, too. Bozeman, MT, usually gets about 5 inches of snow in February, Powell-Palm says, but it got 27 inches this February. In snowfall that dense, farmers frequently lose newborn calves because they can’t find them in time to bring them in out of the snow.That much snowfall can also mean soil that’s too frozen or too wet for planting in early spring -- no matter how eager farmers are to get started. Online guidance for farmers in Nebraska reads, “If you're putting a log chain or tow strap in the tractor cab just in case you get stuck, even you know it’s too wet.”
Can the Weather Affect How You Feel?
Can the Weather Affect How You Feel?What does damp, cold weather do to your body? Turns out it affects more than your plans or outfit choice.
Changing SoilBesides the changing weather, the soil itself is changing, too. Soil stores carbon, a nutrient that keeps it healthy and fertile for food production. Carbon and other crucial compounds in the soil also help prevent erosion -- the gradual destruction of the soil. Both floods and winds after droughts can erode the soil and sap its nutrients.
What Heat Can Do to Your Body
It’s your natural cooling system. Your body pushes sweat out onto the surface of your skin. As the air absorbs it (evaporation), it draws heat away and cools you down. This works better in drier climates where humidity is low. You might get very tired and sometimes seriously ill if it doesn’t work quickly enough.
It happens in extreme heat when your body can’t get cool enough and sweats away too much water and salt. You get pale and clammy, and your temperature often goes over 100 degrees. You also may be tired, weak, lightheaded, and nauseated, and have a headache. Get to a cool shaded area, lie down, and drink something with salt and sugar. Sip water if that’s all you have. If you ignore it, it could lead to heatstroke, which is an emergency.
This is heat at its most dangerous. You can’t control your body temperature, which can go above 104 degrees. Your skin gets warm and dry. You might get confused or agitated, and have a fast pulse, nausea, and a headache. Call 911 right away. Left untreated, it may cause seizures, coma, and can be life-threatening. Get to a cool area, sip something (if you can), and pack ice under your arms and between your legs.
When it’s very hot, you can sweat away too much fluid, along with essential minerals like sodium and potassium. You may be thirsty and pee less than usual, and your mouth and tongue might feel dry. You could even feel dizzy, lightheaded, and confused. Head for a cool place and drink something balanced with salt and sugar (such as an oral rehydration solution). Serious cases need emergency care, including fluids you get through an IV.
It happens, often in hot humid weather, when you sweat so much that your sweat glands get blocked. When your pores can’t get rid of it, you break out in tiny red bumps. It’s more likely at your armpits, groin, neck, elbows, and under the breasts. You can help prevent it and treat it if you wear light, loose, absorbent clothing like cotton. Try to stay as cool and dry as possible.
Bare skin burns if it’s in the sun too long. It may get reddish, itchy, painful, and warm to the touch. If serious, you could have blisters, headache, fever, and nausea. Go inside as soon as possible. Drink plenty of water, and don’t pop any blisters. A cold, damp cloth and aloe vera lotions may help soothe the pain. Better yet, prevent sunburn with clothes, hats, and broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least 30 SPF.
It’s more likely when you’re new to a hot place, so take care to stay hydrated. Heat can dehydrate you and make it harder for your brain to get enough blood. That may make you dizzy and pass out. It might be worse if you stand for a long time or get up suddenly. Getting used to a hotter place can take up to 2 weeks. If you feel faint, lie down and raise your legs above your head. Go to a cool area and drink fluids as soon as possible.
Heat can cause your fingers, toes, or ankles to swell and make your skin feel tight. It's not serious and usually goes away when you cool down and elevate your legs. Talk to your doctor if it causes pain, keeps happening, or doesn't get better.
Higher Heart Rate
When you get hot, your heart may beat faster. It does that in order to pump more blood to your skin, where it can release some of that extra heat. As a result, other parts of your body may not get enough blood. This could make you tired and sluggish, especially if you’re trying to do hard physical or mental work.
Lower Blood Pressure
When you’re hot, you sweat. That makes you lose fluids and electrolytes. Together, these things might drop your blood pressure, sometimes enough to make you dizzy or even pass out. It could be even worse if your heart doesn’t pump normally and isn’t able to adjust to the greater demand.
You may find it harder to concentrate and do hard tasks as things heat up. It’s usually nothing to worry about, and you can fix it with a rest in a cool place and something to drink. But if you’re already sick from the heat and you become seriously confused about where you are or what you’re doing, it could be a sign of heatstroke, which needs immediate medical care.
Should You Exercise in the Heat?
You might be fine exercising outside when it’s 85 degrees and the humidity is low. But if the humidity hits 80%, it’s like it’s really 97 degrees. (That’s the “effective temperature,” which you can check online.) Even if you’re healthy, that makes you more likely to get heat exhaustion. Wear loose clothing, drink plenty of water, and know the signs of heat-related illness. Or just take your workout indoors!
When a heat wave hits:
- Drink lots of water, even if you’re not thirsty.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol, which dehydrate you.
- Eat lighter meals, more often.
- Wear lightweight, light-colored clothing.
- Check on loved ones who live alone or don’t have air conditioning.
- Stay inside as much as possible and avoid outdoor chores.
- Never leave a child or pet alone in a car, even if it’s not that hot outside.
It can be life-threatening, and heat exhaustion and heatstroke aren't the only reasons. Heat can also trigger heart issues, and even worsen breathing problems, as it boosts air pollution. Your city or local health department may have online information about where to find public pools, air-conditioned spaces, medical assistance, and other help during a heat wave.
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“The risk of floods is a gradual loss of the soil,” says Mike Rivington, PhD, who researches land use at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland. “So it’s a double-edged sword when you get both wind erosion and rain-based erosion.”Carbon released from the soil into the air accounts for about one-third of the increase in carbon in the atmosphere over the last 150 years. The transfer of carbon adds to rising temperatures and makes soil that’s less fertile and more likely to erode. Research shows that many farmers across the Corn Belt in Midwestern states are shifting their farming practices to prevent erosion and keep soil healthy. Some have stopped or significantly reduced tilling, which mixes up the soil as a way to control weeds and pests, among other benefits, but also promotes erosion and removes essential nutrients from the soil. Many Corn Belt farmers have also started to plant “cover crops,” which are planted after the cash crop to prevent erosion, weeds, and pests and maintain soil quality.“We are seeing a recognition at the farm level that this is not their father’s climate. Farmers are seeing things that are different from what they’ve seen before,” says Ziska of the USDA.
More CO2, Fewer Plant NutrientsThese changes in the soil and the air, research finds, are changing the very chemistry of the plants people rely on for food. More CO2 in the atmosphere is, in fact, good for plant growth. But size isn’t everything when it comes to the value of a plant.“Growing crops at elevated CO2 decreases their nutritional value,” says Donald Ort, PhD, the Robert Emerson professor of plant biology and crop sciences at the University of Illinois. “Protein tends to go down as well as micronutrients like calcium and magnesium.” As these nutrients go down, starch rises in rice, wheat, and other crops.
SLIDESHOWResearchers don’t know for sure why this may be, but they have theories. “With higher CO2, it’s thought that plants become less nutritious because they put more energy into their growth and not as much into the development of the parts of the plant that we eat,” says Michelle Tigchelaar, PhD, a climate scientist at the Stanford University Center for Ocean Solutions.
Slideshow: 10 Worst Smog Cities in America
Up in the Air: Smog Hot Spots
After more than 50 years, the Clean Air Act still helps clean up air pollution in much of the nation. But about four in 10 Americans still live in areas with unhealthy air. This can make it hard to breathe. It also makes many health issues, such as asthma, lung cancer, heart attacks, and strokes, more likely. Is your city one of the smoggy ones? See the American Lung Association's current top 10 smog cities list to find out.
No. 10: New York City; Newark, NJ; Connecticut; Pennsylvania
This sprawling metro area moves one spot on the list, from ninth in 2017, but is still among the top 10 smoggiest, thanks in part to the vast number of cars. Worse, New York City fails EPA standards for both dangerous particle pollution and ozone. In all, more than 23 million people breathe this gunky air.
No. 9: Redding, Red Bluff, CA
This area north of Sacramento jumped up from 17th place in 2017 to ninth, mostly due to higher ozone levels. The report says higher temperatures make it more likely to form and harder to clean up. Too much of it can trigger coughing and asthma attacks and may even shorten life.
No. 8: Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ
Up three spots this year, the greater Phoenix area has hot, dry weather that keeps the air smoggy for its 4.5 million residents. The number of high ozone days dropped in 2018, compared with 2017. Efforts like the Ozone Campaign -- in which the county air quality department calls on locals to commit to one day of driving less while carpooling and biking more, and skipping drive-thru lines to go inside -- should keep the good work going.
No. 7: Modesto-Merced, CA
The San Joaquin Valley area has ranked among the nation's top 10 smoggiest areas for years. But 2018 marks its lowest number of bad ozone days yet. This is good news for its 800,000-plus residents, especially the more than 17,000 with pediatric asthma. Because their lungs are growing and they breathe a lot of air while playing outside, air pollution is more likely to hit them harder. This can mean ozone-related problems like reduced lung growth.
No. 6: San Diego-Carlsbad, CA
Although it claims stellar weather year-round, California’s Beach City is down a spot on the list. Smog can cloud over the blue skies and foul the crisp ocean breezes here. The area thrives in part due to its cloudless skies, low wind speeds, and warm weather. Levels spike during the summer and early fall.
No. 5: Sacramento-Roseville, CA
California’s capital city had been on its way down the list, but it moved up three places in 2018. What fueled the jump? Agricultural and freight operations, four major highways, and too many smog-producing vehicles. But the number of unhealthy ozone days here has dropped by more than half since 2000.
No. 4: Fresno-Madera, CA
An estimated 1 million residents, plus thousands of visitors to nearby national parks, breathe in unhealthy levels of ozone in California’s Central Valley. Like other Golden State cities, weather and geography push the ozone spikes. On the plus side, the region had fewer high ozone days and moved up the list from 3 to 4.
No. 3: Visalia-Porterville-Hanford, CA
Air quality in the gateway to Sequoia National Park has fallen. As a result, the area moved from 4 to 3 in the rankings. This is largely due to the high ozone levels that continue to cover the region and pose a health threat. Weather and geography trap smog and other types of dangerous, dirty air in California’s San Joaquin Valley.
No. 2: Bakersfield, CA
This Southern California city holds the No. 2 position, just as it has for the 2 previous years. Oil companies and car and truck emissions are to blame for Bakersfield stalling in the rankings. But there has been some progress: This year, the area marked its lowest-ever number of bad ozone days.
No. 1: Los Angeles
The City of Angels once again takes the No. 1 spot for unhealthy air. But it’s making strides. 2018 saw the reached lowest number of bad ozone days ever reported. Laws that lower emissions from power plants, cars, and trucks get the credit.
Fairbanks, AK and Particle Pollution
This city’s new ranking makes the importance of monitoring clear. Before it upgraded its equipment, there wasn’t enough data for this information. Now, that data reveals that Fairbanks has the highest year-round particle pollution levels in the 2018 report. In 2017, it was at No. 17.
Fresh air is in high supply in six U.S. cities, up from four from the last report. A Cleanest City ranking means that town had zero high ozone or high particle pollution days and ranked among the 25 cities with the lowest year-round particle levels. Five locales are repeat rankers, but one joins the list for the first time.
Clean Air: Bellingham, WA
New to the list, this area boasts some of the nation’s healthiest air. It’s tied for first for lowest ozone levels and for 24-hour particle pollution. It’s also ranked 166th out of 187 metropolitan areas for annual particle pollution. Located near Puget Bay, the city benefits from brisk winds and a lack of major polluters and industries like refineries that produce emissions.
Clean Air: Burlington, South Burlington, Vermont
Vermont’s largest city dropped one notch in the rankings, but it’s still among the cleanest. This college town is nestled between Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains. Besides an awe-inspiring landscape, it has a walkable downtown area and plentiful parks. These features aren't just good for whiling away the hours; they also give air quality a boost.
Clean Air: Casper, Wyoming
Another new addition, Casper ranks third among the nation’s cleanest metropolitan areas for year-round particle pollution, eighth for ozone pollution, and ninth for 24-hour particle pollution. Cheyenne, in the southeast corner of this mountainous, sparsely populated state, topped the list for cleanest cities with regard to year-round particle pollution and scored high on the cleanest cities for ozone pollution list as well.
Clean Air: Honolulu
It’s home to about 1 million locals and welcomes eight times as many tourists each year. Despite this, the island paradise of Oahu is almost smog-free. It’s near water, so constant breezes whisk pollution out to sea. And there’s a lot of rainfall and lack of heavy industry. Both help keep this beautiful area clean.
Clean Air: Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, FL
Florida’s Space Coast area is no stranger to the Cleanest Cities List. It’s blessed by nature with a flat landscape and strong winds that don’t give dirty air a chance to linger. This area had no unhealthy air days in 2017. It also ranked among the nation’s cleanest for ozone as well as year-round and short-term particle pollution.
Clean Air: Wilmington, NC
The state’s Clean Smokestacks Act, which put tough emission standards on coal-fired power plants, did a lot to improve air quality here. Now, this charming coastal town has bragging rights for recording zero unhealthy air days. This is the second year that Wilmington has made the list of cleanest cities. Its appearance makes history for the state: No other city here has ever placed on it.
Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian on 12/12/2018
But some research suggests that the combined effects of CO2 and rising temperatures on crops will offset each other. In one study, researchers grew soybeans in a greenhouse where temperatures and CO2 levels reflected those predicted for 2050. The heat, they found, boosted the nutritional value of the plants while the CO2 lessened it. Also, the heat stunted plant growth, while CO2 bolstered it. The results, the study authors concluded, was that crops in 2050 may not be so different from those grown today.The Soil Science Society of America, which describes itself as a progressive group focused on soil sustainability, says that while most areas will have agricultural losses from climate change, some will not. “Some regions and crops will benefit, most will not,” the group says.Those closest to the issue -- i.e., farmers -- are less likely to be convinced climate change is real or that humans are to blame. A 2014 study from Purdue University found that while more than 90% of scientists and climatologists believe climate change is real and more than half said humans were the cause, only 66% of corn growers recognize climate change as real. Only 8% of farmers said humans were the cause of climate change.
What’s to Be DoneWhile ideological divisions over climate change will continue, those who see it as a threat are already exploring ways to adapt. Simply cutting carbon emissions to halt temperature rise is no longer enough to stem the tide of climate change.“There will be changes no matter what we do. Even if we were to go completely fossil fuel-free tomorrow, we will still have more warming. It’s inevitable. It’s already baked in,” says Jonathan Patz, MD, director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We need to be prepared.”One way to prepare is to change farming practices. “Organic farming is the complete package as far as addressing climate change,” says Powell-Palm. He is an organic farmer himself, but scientific research backs up what he says. A 2017 side-by-side comparison of the soil composition of organic farms and conventional farms found that organic farms pull significantly more carbon out of the air and into the soil than conventional farms do.
But while alternative farming practices can preserve the soil in the long run, they may not be c
st-effective for farmers in the short term. For that reason, not all farmers are eager to take them up. New farming methods also may not address the changing chemistry of plants, so researchers are exploring ways to address that issue, too.Beyond being profitable for farmers, however, is the larger question of whether organic food can be made in large enough quantities, and at affordable prices, to feed the world’s growing population. Two recent studies made the claim that it is possible, but both would require most of the people on earth to become vegetarian, as organic vegetables are more affordable than organic meat and are easier on the environment.Still, Ort says, “We’re looking for strategies to adapt plants to the conditions that we know are coming.”Ort and his team have genetically modified plants to boost crop size by 40%. They are also exploring ways to identify species of plants that are naturally more productive so that genetic modification won’t be the only way to feed the global population. “There’s the possibility to go out and look for natural genetic variation that might be in wild relatives of soybean, or wheat, or rice, and then bring it in by selective breeding rather than by genetic engineering,” he says.Ultimately, researchers hope that a collection of approaches will address growing food needs in the face of less productive crops. Steps to slow temperature rise will tackle the problem from one side, while adaptation must happen on the other.“If we don’t cut greenhouse gas emissions, we are in very serious trouble,” says Rivington, “but other tactics must happen together at the same time.”
If we don’t cut greenhouse gas emissions, we are in very serious trouble.Mike Rivington, PhD, land use researcher at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland