How Warmer Winters are Affecting Agriculture

This isn’t news. We’ve known that the planet has been warming up. Some of us even awoke in January to 60 degree weather and wondered blissfully, where is winter? Whether you believe the change in weather (and climate) is due to human-related activities or the earth’s natural warming and cooling cycle, there is no denying it. Our climate is changing. And what some refuse to consider is how this change could affect our daily lives. And just to put it into perspective, we’re going to illustrate how warmer winters are affecting agriculture.  

A Warming Trend

In the last four years, our Januaries have been the warmest on record. But last month was the hottest recorded January in 141 years. 

According to NOAA, spring snow has been disappearing earlier in the year over the last five decades. And while this may be a relief to those itching to slip into their spring dresses, less snow across the Northern Hemisphere is not a good sign. Snow reflects solar energy away from surfaces that would absorb it. An increase in the amount of solar energy the earth absorbs means hotter surface temperatures. Thus, the earth continues to warm. 

This year’s warm winter, however, is caused by something a little less ambiguous than climate change. 

The Arctic Oscillation

The Arctic Oscillation, an atmospheric circulation pattern over the mid-to-high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, is mostly to blame. The AO strongly influences weather and climate in North America, Europe, and Asia. When the AO is negative, locations in mid-latitudes experience frigid winters. When it is positive, as it is now, we experience warmer weather. 

Currently, the AO is trapping frigid air in the polar region, preventing it from moving south.  

Scientists are researching whether climate change has impacted the AO. Climate change has reduced temperature differences between the Arctic and southern regions. With the gap between these temperatures decreasing, this positive trend could become more common. Therefore, we could very well see warmer winters in the coming years. 

But this will spell trouble for our agricultural sector. 

How Warm Winters Affect Crops

The winter of 2016-2017 illuminated a problem on Georgia farms that now farmers everywhere are beginning to face: a decrease in crop yields. 

This winter resulted in an 80% crop failure for Georgia peaches, which rely on cold weather to set fruit. Blueberry yields also suffered, which prompted many farmers to turn to GMOs (genetically modified organisms) that could adapt to this weather. 

Similarly, California’s cash crops–such almonds, wine grapes, pistachios, and walnuts–rely on cold weather. Chill hours are an essential variable in the pollination equation, and without them, pollination could be delayed, affecting crop yields. And then there’s California’s apple, cherry, and pear crops, which require the longest period of cold weather. Scientists predict that the cold temperatures upon which these crops depend could decrease 60% by 2100.

Cold weather is also good for the soil. It keeps soil microbes from breaking down organic matter, which ensures that soil retains its nutrients during the winter. It also protects the soil from erosion during rainfall and keeps pests away.  

So these warmer winters we’re enjoying right now could jeopardize food security in years to come. But the changing climate isn’t only affecting crops. It’s also affecting water availability and pollinator populations. 

How Warm Winters Affect Water Availability

Remember the snow we were talking about earlier? Well, it isn’t only important for keeping temperatures cooler and reflecting solar energy.

Many places rely on snowmelt for water. In California, snow that falls in the Sierra Nevada will remain until spring, when it melts and sends a steady flow of water to farms and residents throughout the summer. With snow melting so much earlier, however, California’s snowpack is shrinking. Across the entire West of the U.S., snowpack has melted 15 – 30% already. 

And instead of snow, we’re now seeing a lot more rain. You may think this is a good thing–if they need water, then they need rain, right? 

When it snows, the snow will sit in a reservoir until temperatures slowly rise, sending water to these areas during hot, dry summers. Think of this as a timer. They get the water when they need it, not when they don’t. Rain cannot be stored in the same way. Heavy rainfall overwhelms reservoirs and causes severe flooding. So these warmer winters will affect the West during the summer, most likely causing severe flooding and then drought. 

This will affect humans for sure. But what about animals? How are mammals and insects reacting to warmer winters? 

How Warm Winters Affect Pollinators

Have you noticed any bees or birds out when they shouldn’t be? Maybe an increase in stinkbugs or other insects in your home? Many animals and insects run on biological clocks that work in sync with nature. Many of these creatures hibernate during the winter. But when it gets warmer all of a sudden, they don’t think: hey, it might get cold again…I should stay where I am.

Honeybees, for instance, will leave their hive when the weather gets warmer. They’ll try pollinating flowers, expending energy, and eating the honey they stored for winter. When this honey runs out, they could risk starvation. Or, if the weather suddenly shifts again, they could freeze to death. If our pollinators begin to die off, our crops could suffer. Pollinators help pollinate 87% of plants, including important cash crops. 

Butterflies and bats are also in danger. Warmer temperatures are influencing the migratory patterns of these pollinators. More bats are staying in the U.S. during the winter rather than flying to Mexico, and if the temperature suddenly drops and kills off their food source, they could starve.  

Warmer winters won’t only affect animals and insects; they’ll also affect us.

How Warm Winters Negatively Impact Humans

If you’re someone who enjoys winter activities, like skiing, you could be out of luck. In Maine, snow levels have begun to dwindle. Now, ski resorts are offering other outdoor activities that don’t rely on snow in order to stay open. In Alaska, skiing has become less popular while biking has become more popular, as Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the U.S.   

Hate tick season? Well, it could become longer. Because temperatures are beginning to rise, ticks are becoming more prevalent during the winter. And so are mosquitoes, who normally die off during cold winters. Bark beetles, which also die off during the winter, have been ravaging trees for the last few decades due to warmer winters. But warmer temperatures have also caused a spike in the size of these beetles. In Colorado, 40 – 50% of mature spruce have been killed due to this pest. 

Those who reside in villages along Alaska’s western coast could be in danger. Sea ice that protects these villages has been melting, exposing residents to brutal waves that have further degraded ice. Ice roads are beginning to break, causing motor-vehicle accidents and deaths.   

So whether you believe in climate change or not, the earth is warming. Agriculture, businesses, and living creatures are suffering from these effects. The question is not is climate change real? The question is how do we adapt?  


Climate Variability: Arctic Oscillation

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