When “Once in a Century” Food Threats Happen Every 10 Years


The world’s food supply sits at a precarious balance. Swings in agricultural production due to drought or extreme heat can lead to spiking food prices, ecological damage, civil unrest, and other severe consequences.

To help governments and businesses prepare for these potential crises, scientists are using agricultural and climate model data to forecast the frequency, severity, and effect of extreme weather years.

In his July 8th talk at the Our Common Future Under Climate Change conference in Paris, University of Chicago and Computation Institute scientist Joshua Elliott estimated that these “once-in-a-century” threats may be far more frequent in the future, necessitating global protective measures.

[Elliott's talk begins at 18:40]

The costs of large-scale extreme weather events can be immense. In 1988, a drought in the United States caused an estimated $79 billion in damage, the second-worst weather-related disaster in the country’s history.

By driving global crop models with ensemble output from climate models, Elliott estimated that extremes previously estimated to occur once every 100 years could occur every 30 years by mid-century, and every 10-20 years by 2100.

Furthermore, improvements in technology and agricultural adaptation such as earlier planting and expanded irrigation won’t mitigate the impact of more frequent large-scale droughts upon crops.
Using data from the Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project (AgMIP) and the Intersectoral Impact Model Intercomparison (ISI-MIP), Elliott used the 1930s “Dust Bowl” drought as an analog for potential future extreme conditions. Even accounting for improved technology, the effects of such extreme weather on crops such as maize and soy would be devastating, approximately 50 percent worse than the droughts of 1988 or 2012.

To reduce this damage, Elliott proposed several regional and global protective measures, including increased trade, stock-hoarding, crop breeding, and improved forecasts, monitoring, and modeling.

Read more about the research and Elliott's Common Future talk at Reuters.

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