By SUSAN BLOWER
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Due to shifting weather patterns and climate change, farmers in North America can expect more frequent droughts in the next 15-25 years, though they will not necessarily be severe, said Evelyn Browning-Garriss, historical climatologist.
Browning-Garriss, also known as “The Weather Whisperer,” spoke to more than 500 farmers at the Indiana Livestock, Forage and Grain Forum earlier this month. She was one of three featured speakers brought by Indiana Soybean Alliance.
Farmers in the Midwest can expect rain in the spring, but it will not be sufficient for the hot and dry summer to follow, Browning-Garriss predicted. However, she said this summer should not be as extreme as last year. Farmers and ranchers west of the Mississippi River who are still in a drought will be at a greater disadvantage.
Browning-Garriss said that this cycle is part of the “new normal,” to which farmers need to adjust in order to prosper. “Climate change is not linear. It ebbs and flows. Natural factors are always in motion. It’s like riding a horse. If you don’t adjust, you will fall off,” Browning-Garriss said.
Browning-Garriss bases her predictions on changes in the oceans, as well as historical data, including recorded weather and glacial core history, tree and coral rings, and lake sediment.
According to Browning-Garriss, the world is experiencing weather trends similar to that in the 1950s. While the 1970s and 80s were relatively uneventful weather years, she said the current phase will lead to more unstable weather, such as frequent droughts – including “flash droughts” – in the central United States, worldwide tropical storms, and more winter storms in the Northeast.
However, Browning-Garriss said the Midwest, particularly the Eastern Corn Belt, is in the best position. In the 1950s, a five-year drought impacted the Great Plains and the southwestern United States, and for three of these years, drought conditions extended from coast to coast. The Midwest was not the center of the historic drought and, aside from southern Indiana and Illinois, usually had one year of dry weather at a time, as opposed to multi-year droughts.
The 1950s drought was characterized by low rainfall and excessively high temperatures, creating rapid evaporation and unexpected “flash droughts.” Texas was impacted the most, with 75 percent of the state below normal rainfall. The Great Plains were devastated by the combination of heat and drought.
Oceans are key
Browning-Garriss said the new weather patterns are the result of changing conditions in the oceans. Since the oceans store solar energy, they are a good indication of current and future weather. When they undergo large, long-term changes, they alter normal temperatures and precipitation patterns.
The Atlantic Ocean changed phases of a 60-70 year cycle in 1995, Browning-Garriss said. Now currents are flowing faster and the water has gone from cool to warm. History suggests this phase will last another 15-25 years. The Pacific, on the other hand, has cooled since 1999, and the Western U.S. has suffered drier conditions. Historically, this trend will last another 20 years.
Last year, the waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans warmed up at the same time. Two severe volcanic eruptions in 2011had increased the amount of ash in the atmosphere, leading to a change in wind patterns. The confluence of these factors created the unusual weather events of 2012, she said.
The United States is suffering its third dry winter in a row. The drought in 2011 mostly affected Texas and the Southern Plains, California, the Southwest, and the Southeast coast. In 2012, the drought shifted east, affecting 76.6 percent of the contiguous 48 states.
The “flash droughts” brought on by high temperatures in 2012 were reminiscent of those in the 1950s, Browning-Garriss said. However, farmers can prepare if they know what’s coming, Browning-Garriss told Farm World. “If you can see it coming, you can learn how to duck!” she explained.
Based on her data, Browning-Garriss said the earth is warming, influenced primarily by natural cyclical changes. “Whatever mankind is doing (to cause climate change) is on top of what nature is doing. We are in a period of global warming,” she explained.
The warmer climate does create “long-term problems for producers in the western states of agriculture,” Browning-Garriss said.
The Southern and Central Plains and the Southwest are at greater risk of multi-year droughts than in previous years. Deserts are moving, and so will farm belts, she added.
Browning-Garriss has been a consultant, editor and author for more than 30 years. According to her website, her newsletter reaches farmers and ranchers, commodities brokers, banks and others. See www.browningnewsletter. com for more details or to subscribe.