‘Unique’ climate data can help farmers prepare: NC researcher

If sophisticated weather data analysis is any indication, Mother Nature does not have a farm-friendly forecast in store for Southern Ontario growers.  

Instead of historically predictable weather – one reason Niagara has flourished as the fruit belt – one high-tech projection is calling for more significant, more extreme, and more variable rain rates. This according to forensic weather data processed and analyzed by Niagara College’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC) team and led by Research & Innovation’s Mike Duncan, who has his PhD in Agricultural Physics. 

“Instead of being even and reliable, it will be heavy and sporadic, which is not crop or soil friendly,” says Duncan, who is the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Industrial Research Chair for Colleges, specializing in precision agriculture and environmental technologies.

His team is looking at two data sets; the first is a forensic, or very detailed, recreation of the weather in the farming areas of Southern Ontario for the between 2000 and 2018, and the second is based on the IPCC RCP(6.0) climate change scenario for the years 2030 to 2048, covering the same area. 

“The second data set shows a snapshot of what ‘might happen’ if CO2 levels keep increasing,” says Duncan. “It is unique in the sense that there are very few realizations of climate change data that show what might happen at the ground as the climate evolves.” 

Duncan and his team wanted to look at what farmers might face in a changing climate and he says the positive news is that the growers can be prepared.

“This data doesn’t lie … I’m not showing probabilities; I’m showing raw data. I’m not predicting that the rainfall in 2017 is going to flood the Great Lakes … it did.”

The 2000 to 2018 forensic meteorology data was generated using a numerical weather model operating on a global data set called ERA-Interim, which can re-create the weather over the last 18 years in Southern Ontario at one-hour intervals. This expensive data set was purchased as part of an industry partner project looking specifically at weather statistics for growing tree crops.

The state-of-the-art model generates 140 weather variables at more than 30,000 grid points across the farming areas of Southern Ontario, to allow the Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms to make very accurate maps of suitable growing areas for a given crop.

“It’s $155k worth of knowledge that nobody else has,” says Duncan, adding that the detailed weather data can re-create the growing conditions for any crop and offers a look at what’s happening at the ground level.  

“It also allows us to evaluate whether crops that currently grow in the area will be able to grow given various warming scenarios resulting from climate change,” he explains.

The data shows that while the summers aren’t getting any hotter, they are extended, and winter temps are rising, to the tune of one degree Celsius every year. 

The research team also found 2014 to be a pivotal year in our area. Before that year, rain fell like clockwork; there were very few droughts or deluges. Then it all changed, says Duncan.

“We had a rain rate that was pretty much constant up to 2014, and then it dropped in half, and then it doubled … and that is typical of systems becoming unstable.” He notes that while there have been erratic temperatures previously, it hasn’t before been in concert with fluctuating rainfall. 

“This data doesn’t lie … I’m not showing probabilities; I’m showing raw data. I’m not predicting that the rainfall in 2017 is going to flood the Great Lakes … it did.”

And while the forecasted increase in temperatures may be concerning, the water – the amount and variability – is what’s most important to agriculture. With higher temperatures and a longer summer, it also means a greater chance for pest survival. Couple this with crop stresses from variable rain rates, it only worsens the potential for disease, explains Duncan.

It’s a high-risk combination for growers because with low rain rates, the land becomes extremely dry and hot, and then when increased rain hits, the ground won’t soak up the water, and the soil/seeds can get washed away in an afternoon via erosion. 

Duncan’s team took this 2000 to 2018 data set and created a climate change scenario for 2030 to 2048. And he calls the projection data “depressing.”

“Rain rates will be 10 to 25 percent higher than what they have been historically – at least prior to 2014.”

The rain will come in higher rain-rate clumps, and the variability rate will also climb, he says. “Rain rates will be 10 to 25 percent higher than what they have been historically – at least prior to 2014.”

Duncan recently shared his findings at the annual Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Convention (OFVC), Canada’s premier horticultural event, in Niagara Falls, and also with local stakeholders, including Vance Badawey, MP for Niagara Centre. 

“I don’t think it’s a complete disaster, but there’s going to be a big change,” says Duncan.

It won’t be just farmers affected either; urban infrastructure won’t be spared, Duncan warns. “The urban effect can be huge – commensurate with the agriculture effects.”

‘I’ve seen high rain rates before and the effect can be stunning in an urban environment,” he says, adding industries such as insurance, farming banks bankrolling crops, and construction will all be affected.

The good news: such simulation data can help farmers prepare, and his AETIC team can help provide specific weather analysis. “Growers and other urban industries need to implement water management strategies, which means local reservoirs and pools. They need to have tools in place to deal with high rain rates and have a plan to manage how the water either pools or runs off their property.”

While there are still questions to be answered, Duncan says his team is open to work with growers or other industries who would like specific data analysis.

Niagara College’s AETIC team works with private and public sector partners to develop innovative solutions to address today’s challenges in agriculture, local and sustainable food production, plant growth, horticulture practices, greenhouse operations, aquaponics and environmental management.

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