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Climate change forcing tough choices for farmers dependent on snowmelt

Crops in places dependent on snowmelt for water irrigation, such as grapes grown in Yakima, Wash., will be subject to more droughts due to climate change, researchers said Friday. File photo courtesy of Washington State University
Crops in places dependent on snowmelt for water irrigation, such as grapes grown in Yakima, Wash., will be subject to more droughts due to climate change, researchers said Friday. File photo courtesy of Washington State University

July 10 (UPI) -- Farmers in areas dependent on melting snow for crop irrigation will face tough trade-offs between predictable crop yields and droughts caused by climate change, U.S. researchers said Friday.

In places like the Yakima River Basin in Washington state where crops such as grapes, wheat, corn, potatoes, cherries and apples need the water from annual snowmelt to thrive, higher temperatures caused by climate change will likely mean more frequent droughts.

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And while farmers who adapt by planting drought-tolerant crop varieties may be able to make their yields more predictable overall, they will still remain vulnerable to periodic severe crop failures, according to researchers from Washington State and Cornell universities.

The agricultural experts published their findings Friday in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

They reached their conclusions first by building a climate risk model for the Yakima Basin tying together crop growth and development, land-surface hydrology and river-system processes, and then calculated how different kinds of drought-resistant crop varieties would fare under the conditions.

What they found was that although those varieties could significantly improve farmers' average yield and income, growers could also be subjected to a highly volatile range of highs of lows due to extreme weather events triggered by the warming climate.

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"Typical and best-case annual yields are much higher," said study co-author Jennifer Adam of Washington State. "But climate change still is likely to cause severe droughts where current water management institutions in the Yakima River Basin simply cannot provide enough water, and there are severe worst-case crop failures."

The authors conclude the most promising way to strike a balance between predictable yields and higher volatility is to both improve crop varieties and re-think how water availability is governed in parts of the country dependent on snowmelt for irrigation.

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