September 15, 2010

Agriculture, climate change focus of new study

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- An interdisciplinary group of researchers at Southern Illinois University Carbondale will use a $1.43 million grant from the National Science Foundation to examine the response of Midwest agriculture to climate change during the rest of the century.

The four-year project, entitled “CNH: Climate Change, Hydrology and Landscapes of America’s Heartland: A Multi-Scale Natural-Human System,” is under way now, in the first stages of the necessary data collection.

Christopher L. Lant, a professor in the geography and environmental resources department in the College of Liberal Arts, heads up the research team. Rounding out the research team are Justin T. Schoof, assistant professor in the geography and environmental resources department; John W. Nicklow, professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering; Silvia Secchi, assistant professor of agribusiness economics in the College of Agricultural Sciences; Steven Kraft, professor emeritus of agribusiness economics; and Girmay Misgna, GIS Lab supervisor for the Environmental Resources and Policy doctoral program.

The research will require several steps, beginning with plotting probable climate changes in the Midwest over the next 90 years. In addition to looking at climate change, the team will use agent-based modeling to include such factors as economic and policy changes, and advancements in agricultural techniques. Agent-based models are computational models used for simulating possible scenarios. For example, in this case, if the Midwest sees an overall warming trend that causes the growing season to lengthen, what might happen if the agriculture community responds by changing its current crop selection or by investing in irrigation -- how might this affect the quantity and quality of water?

One goal of the project is to forecast agricultural land use patterns, and, in particular, how climate change and human activity will affect the watersheds in the study area. The study area includes Illinois and other Midwest farming states, with special emphasis on eight watersheds within that study area.

Lant said data from global super-computers can be “downscaled” to predict future climates at specific locations. Schoof, whose research specialty includes climate variability, climate change and climatological methods, has already begun collecting data.

“We will have an accurate model,” Lant said. “Then we look at possible responses to the climate changes.”

Lant noted that economics is a primary driving force in the agent-based model the team uses. For example, farmers want to maximize their profits, naturally, and climate changes may offer different opportunities for different regions as the landscape and land use shift.

“Water is caught in the middle,” Lant said. “Intensive agricultural production is very polluting. If the changes lead to increased agricultural production, will the pollution in the water increase significantly? What happens to water use if an area begins to rely more on irrigation than in the past?”

“This study will give us an early glimpse at different adaptations and different problems,” Lant said. “We will have an idea of new agricultural opportunities and also challenges. However, factors like biotechnology advances are hard to predict.”

The study will also examine how policies and land use might maximize environmental benefits. “We’ll look at issues such as compensation -- should a landowner receive monetary compensation for practices that reduce pollution, sequester carbon, or filter water?” he said.

Another component of the study is education and dissemination of the findings. With the guidance of assessment guru Rhonda Kowalchuk, associate professor educational psychology, the team will work with local middle and high school teachers to develop and test teaching modules using systems modeling concepts.

“We’ll look at basic concepts such as ‘what is a watershed?’ and more in-depth examinations of land use and nature-society interaction,” he said. The modules could fit into grades 6-12 science and 9-12 social studies education curriculums.

“We anticipate that climatic change will diminish agricultural and ecologic potentials in some regions, such as through reduced water availability, while expand it in other areas, such as through lengthening of the growing season,” Lant explained, referring to the project abstract presented to the National Science Foundation. “However, these effects will be greatly influenced through market and policy developments such as biofuel production and carbon credits.”