Impact of climate change on southern farming systems

Author: | Date: 11 Feb 2020

Take home messages

  • It is important to consider both climate variability and climate change.
  • The projections show a continuation of the warming and drying that has been seen in the southern grains belt. The confidence in the trends and projections is higher for temperature than rainfall.
  • Adaptable, information-rich farming systems are needed. This includes understanding phenology, making the most of rainfall that falls at any time of the year, responding to seasonal variability, vigilance for pests and disease and an appropriate level of optimism.

Background

In 2019, Australia experienced the driest year on record (drier than 1902) and warmest year on record (half a degree hotter than 2013 and 2 degrees hotter than 1961-90 reference period). Many in the southern grains region have been through a series of very difficult years. This poses the obvious question as to what to expect in the coming decades? Should the recent past be interpreted as the challenges of our variable climate or how much is a manifestation of what is to come with climate change? The simple answer is that there are components of both variability and change with higher confidence for trends and projections of warming than drying. It is important to think clearly about the interaction between climate variability and climate change, cycle and trend, hot spell and warming, drought and drying, a run of poor seasons and increased aridity.

As a general observation, rural communities are much more aware of year-to-year and decade –to-decade variability in climate compared to urban communities. Some commentators remarked that, for urban communities, water restrictions during the Millennium drought (2002 to 2009) provided an abrupt realisation of vulnerability to climate. Following from this shock, there seemed to be greater acceptance of climate change. For rural communities, the deep understanding of past runs of poor years and good years leads to a greater emphasis on variability and a caution or suspicion about attributing events to climate change. This is mainly because variability is part of lived experience and understanding passed down from parents. An additional factor is that because the climate plays such an important part in livelihoods, discussing a negative trend is confronting. While some might say that when a crop runs out of water or is hit by a heat event that the distinction between variability and change doesn’t matter, I disagree. A neighbour saying that they have had enough and are selling up because of drought (variability) is quite different to saying they are leaving due to increased aridity (long term and ongoing change). The central point for the grains industry (and wider society) is that we need to shift the conversation from either variability or change, waves or tides to a respectful conversation on variability and change, waves and tides.

Climate variability and climate change – waves and tides; cycles and trends

Climate variability is the year-to-year changes in seasonal conditions due to the internal forcing of the climate system (for example, El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) or Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD)). Many grain growers are aware of these major drivers of climate. GRDC has invested in the Climate4Profit and the R&D for Profit project, working with the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) on climate extremes. More effective management of seasonal variability is well recognised as one of the most effective ways to manage long term risk.

Climate change is manifested as a longer-term trend due to external forcing that comes from astronomy (distance from the sun), volcanoes and changes to levels of green-house gases. Human induced climate change or the enhanced greenhouse effect refers to the changes in the radiative properties of the atmosphere due to human activity. Earlier reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that the warming of the climate system is unequivocal. The fifth and most recent assessment report states; ‘Human influence on the climate system is clear’ and assess that there is a 95 to 100% probability that human influence was the dominant cause of global warming in the last 50 years. The attribution of the cause of warning increases confidence in the trend and indicates that the future depends on choices made by the global community.

A simple but powerful analogy used by the late eminent climate scientist Stephen Schneider is to consider a vulnerable system (like a grain crop) being impacted as a sandcastle with waves (climate variability) and tides (climate change). Following any damaging climate event such as drought, fire, heatwave or flood, the question is often posed as to how much can be attributed to climate change (the tide) and how much to climate variability (the wave). It is almost always the wave that destroys the sandcastle, but on a rising tide the waves do more damage. Another analogy for the same purpose is a man walking in a consistent direction (trend) with a dog on a lead (variation) - (From Dog Walking to Weather and Climate - Climate.gov)

Although Guy Debelle, deputy governor of the Reserve Bank didn’t use analogies of sandcastles or dogs, in 2019 in his speech on monetary policy that distinguished between shocks and trends he noted that economists were used to considering climate shocks (such as a cyclone destroying most of the banana crop or low production due to drought). These climate shocks are treated as temporary and discrete rather than a trend. He posed the question ‘What if droughts are more frequent, or cyclones happen more often? The supply shock is no longer temporary but close to permanent. That situation is more challenging to assess and respond to.' (Climate Change and the Economy - Speech - Reserve Bank of Australia).This involves looking back to interpret the recent past and accessing information on what climate science is projecting for the future.

Looking back at trends in the climate

In 2019 the BoM, CSIRO and FarmLink were funded by the Commonwealth Government in a $2.7M project to develop regional weather and climate guides for all natural resource management regions across Australia. These guides compared the weather records of the last 30 years (1989 to 2019) with the previous 30 years (1959 to 1989) (Australian Regional Weather and Climate Guides - BOM). GRDC was consulted on the design of the information.
(Southern NSW Growers get up to date Climate Outlooks - GROUNDCOVER)

The main conclusions for the Northern and Yorke Peninsula regions of South Australia (SA) are as follows:

  • Annual rainfall has been relatively stable.
  • There have been seven years drier than average and nine wetter.
  • There has been a decrease in rainfall in the autumn months.
  • Winter rainfall has been reliable; summer rainfall has been unreliable.
  • There have been more frosts and they have been coming later.
  • There have been more hot days, with more consecutive days above 40°C.

The recent past has been dominated by the extensive Millennium Drought (2002 to 2009) which can be shown in Figure 1 rainfall across South East Australia. The drought ended with widespread rain from the 2010 La Nina. The only other wet year since the Millennium Drought has been the negative IOD of 2016. The wet springs of 2010 and 2016 were reasonably well forecast in winter by the BoM. Some, but not all of the dry springs were forecast.

April to November rainfall for south eastern Australia (line from Newcastle to Ceduna)

Figure 1. April to November rainfall for south eastern Australia (line from Newcastle to Ceduna) (Source: Bureau of Meteorology).

GRDC has invested in a large project titled ‘Forewarned is Forearmed’ with the BoM to improve the forecast and management of extreme events on a multi-week to seasonal time scale. Another investment in a project led by Agriculture Victoria with input from SARDI and Federation University has funded the Break newsletters and produced a local climate tool where anyone can check the impact of climate drivers on their rainfall.

Looking forward with climate change projections

The first climate change projections for Australia were prepared for the Greenhouse 1987 conference and since then projections have been released by CSIRO in 1990, 1991, 1992, 1996 and 2001, 2007 and 2015 (Whetton et al. 2016). Current projections for Australia are available at the Climate Change in Australia website. The SA Government also provides climate change projections.

Key findings from the Climate Change in Australia report for the southern grains belt include:

  • Average temperatures will continue to increase in all seasons (very high confidence).
  • More hot days and warm spells are projected with very high confidence. Fewer frosts are projected with high confidence.
  • By late in the century, less rainfall is projected during the cool season, with high confidence. There is medium confidence that rainfall will remain unchanged in the warm season.
  • Even though mean annual rainfall is projected to decline, heavy rainfall intensity is projected to increase, with high confidence.
  • A harsher fire-weather climate in the future (high confidence).
  • On annual and decadal basis, natural variability in the climate system can act to either mask or enhance any long-term human induced trend, particularly for rainfall in the next 20 years.

The Climate Change in Australia report compared 70 global climate models. All models show future warming in all seasons of the year. In contrast, there is a disagreement between model projections for annual and seasonal rainfall. Figure 2 shows the number of models in different categories of wetter or drier futures. Using the annual columns for the Murray Basin as an example; the white bar represents no change (-5% to +5% by 2050) and this is the result for about a third of the 70 models. The bars to the left of the white bar show a third projecting moderate drying (-5% to -15%), eight models show severe drying (>15%). The bar to the right of the white bar indicates 12 of the 70 models show a moderate wetting (+5% to 15%). Summer (DJF) and autumn (MAM) show the widest spread but there are more models showing drying than wetting. Winter and spring show more pronounced drying with the strongest projection of drying in spring. The SA grains belt to the west of the Mt Lofty Ranges is covered by the Southern and South West Flatlands (SSWF). There are more models showing drying for this region.

Climate projections for seasonal and annual rainfall changes for 2050 using a high emission Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5 for the Murray Basin region (left) and SA to the west of Mt Lofty Ranges (right). Y-axes show data as the % of models (primary) and number of models (secondary) from the full 70 models. Data from the Climate Change in Australia website.

Figure 2. Climate projections for seasonal and annual rainfall changes for 2050 using a high emission Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 8.5 for the Murray Basin region (left) and SA to the west of Mt Lofty Ranges (right). Y-axes show data as the % of models (primary) and number of models (secondary) from the full 70 models. Data from the Climate Change in Australia website.

In 2018, the National Environmental Science Programme (NESP) built on the 2015 Climate Change in Australia Report producing a summary document on long term trends and future projections for rainfall in Southern Australia.The report concludes that the general drying trend over southern Australia over the past 50 or so years is likely to continue in the future. Key findings are as follows:

  1. The intensification of the subtropical ridge (Pepler et al. 2018)– the pattern of cooler wetter winters and hot dry summers is driven by annual progression of the subtropical ridge from a summer position of 40°S (between mainland and Tasmania) and a winter position of 30°S (Maree SA, Bourke NSW). There is more confidence in the intensification (higher pressures) across southern Australia than a consistent latitudinal shift.
  2. A trend towards positive Southern Annular Mode (SAM) (Lim et al. 2016). A positive SAM indicates a contraction of westerly winds and reduced winter rainfall for southern mainland Australia (and wetter summers). The impact of SAM on winter drying is more pronounced on the southern edge of the continent.
  3. An increase in extreme ENSO and IOD events leading to greater variability (Power et al. 2018).
  4. After assessing the 70 models used in the Climate Change in Australia report, Gross et al. (2017) used 15 models that best represented rain-bearing circulation for southern Australia. These 15 models showed a stronger drying especially in the winter.

In late October 2019 a group of 15 Australian climate scientists held a workshop on the science of extreme event attribution. In this context, attribution addresses the role of anthropogenic climate change in modifying the likelihood, intensity, duration or frequency of a particular extreme event. Table 1 is a qualitative assessment of the ability of the latest climate models to represent specific extremes (model capability), the quality and length of the observational record for extremes (observations) and the level of physical understanding of how anthropogenic forcing influenced the extreme (understanding). The percent of disagreement amongst the 15 workshop participants represents approximately the number of participants expressing ‘strong disagreement’
(BAMOS Vol 32 No.4 December 2019 - The Bulletin of Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society)

Table 1. Qualitative assessment of the ability of the latest climate models to represent model capability, observations and understanding.

Event

Model capacity

Observational record

Understanding

Percent disagreement

Extreme cold

High

High

High

0%

Extreme heat

High

High

High

0%

Marine heatwaves

High

High

High

0%

Fire relevant fuel

Low

Low

Medium

0%

Fire weather

Low

Medium

Medium

10%

Extreme rain

Medium

High

Medium

10%

Drought

Medium

Medium

Low

40%

It is important to note that these are qualitative rankings from a workshop and are more usefully interpreted as relative rankings rather than objective ratings of confidence. The lower level of understanding of the process of drought and the high level of disagreement with the rankings on drought indicate that this in an area of active debate and research. It would be a mistake to interpret the lack of understanding or agreement as an indication that rainfall won’t change.

The role of human induced climate change in the catastrophic bushfire summer of 2019/20 has gained worldwide attention. There is widespread acceptance of the warming, but there is less clarity on the lack of rainfall. The extreme drought leading up to the summer was consistent with the positive IOD and the positive SAM and these can be considered drivers of variability or waves. However, there may be some indication of longer-term trends or a tide. In a response to the Guardian newspaper on 13 January 2020, Professor Matthew England, UNSW Climate Change Research Centre said: ‘These modes of variability are not changing in a way that’s good for south-east Australia… we are stacking the dice for the chances of these extreme drought years because of the changes in the [IOD and SAM] modes. '
Explainer: what are the underlying causes of Australia's shocking bushfire season? - The Guardian '

Exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity of the southern grains industry

Returning to the earlier analogy of a sandcastle by the beach, some sandcastles are more vulnerable than others. The vulnerability of a natural or managed system to climate can be considered as the difference between impact and adaptive capacity (Figure 3). In this simple diagram (Figure 3), the impact of climate is the result of exposure and sensitivity. A high value horticultural crop in a glass house is sensitive to climate, but not exposed whereas a slow growing rangeland shrub is exposed but less sensitive. Recent seasons have highlighted that the grains industry in Australia is both exposed and sensitive to adverse climatic conditions such as drought, frost and heat. In a managed system such as cropping, adaptive capacity includes the varieties, equipment, chemicals and know-how in dealing with the variable and changing climate. Impressive crops produced under difficult circumstances in recent years show the high degree of adaptive capacity within the Australian grains industry.

Figure 3. Vulnerability is determined by impacts and adaptation. (see Turner 2013 for review and critique of frameworks).

In Table 2 the broad concept of climate change is broken down into components of seasonal heat, extreme heat, frost, seasonal rainfall, extreme rain events and changes to carbon dioxide (CO2) levels. This allows comment on the level of confidence from climate science on the exposure, confidence on crop science on sensitivity, and agronomy on management (Hayman, O’Leary and Meinke, 2019).

Table 2. Components of climate change and commentary regarding exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity (Source: Hayman, O’Leary and Meinke, 2019).

  1. Increased mean temperature

Confidence from climate science

(exposure)

Very high All parts of the southern grains region have warmed and are expected to warm in the future. Because inland regions are drier, they are expected to warm faster than coastal regions. The greatest trends in warming across most of the region has been in spring, this may be largely due to a decline in spring rainfall.

Confidence of impact from crop science

(sensitivity)

High confidence that the rate of crop development will increase. Growth rates for winter crops will increase in cooler months and regions. Higher temperatures contribute to a modest increase in potential evapotranspiration. Hot conditions can contribute to more challenging conditions for crop emergence. Increased mean temperature will change the weed and disease spectrum.

Management options

(adaptive capacity)

Understanding the drivers of crop development can be used to better match varieties to the climate. In a warmer world, slower maturing varieties will develop more quickly. GRDC is investing in ongoing work on measuring and modelling the phenology of cereals and pulse crops in the current and future climates. This analysis includes the interaction of water stress with the timing of heat and frost events.

Stubble retention will reduce evaporation and keep the seedbed cooler. CSIRO is investigating the role of long coleoptile wheat varieties.

Residual vulnerability

Low vulnerability to warming over coming decades provided that grain growers have access to crops with appropriate development. Vulnerability to warmer seasons will be greatly increased if growing season rainfall was to decline and warming is associated with heat waves.

Changes to heatwave frequency and intensity

Confidence from climate science

High confidence that in a warmer world the weather patterns that bring heat to the grains belt will result in more intense heat waves. Confidence is lower on how the weather patterns that set up the hot spells will change.

Confidence of impact from crop science

Moderate understanding of the impact of heat on different phenological stages and thresholds for different crops grown in the field and how these impacts are modified by soil moisture. There is ongoing R&D investigating the impact of heat spells at critical stages of cereals and pulses.

Management options

Optimising flowering time of available winter crops and breeding crops that can tolerate high heat loads.

Residual vulnerability

High vulnerability to an increase in spring heat events for all dryland winter crops but especially pulse crops. Spring heat events are more damaging when combined with low soil moisture. In cooler than normal springs water use efficiency (WUE) tends to be higher than expected. This suggests moderate heat events might be imposing a cost in most years.

3. Changes to frost frequency and intensity

Confidence from climate science

Low – a perceived paradox that, despite warming, the frequency and intensity of frost has increased in some regions of the southern grains belt. This may be simply due to dry springs or other drivers related to synoptic patterns. It remains unclear whether this trend is due to decadal variability or increased greenhouse gases. The more rapid crop development due to warmer conditions can contribute to frost risk.

Confidence of impact from crop science

Moderate to low – although impact of extreme frost at critical times can be obvious, the exact link between minimum temperature recorded in the Stevenson screen and damage to crops is noisy. Frost damage is poorly represented in simulation models.

Management options

Understanding the frostier parts of the landscape and matching land use (for example, livestock on river flats). Using the small amount of variation in frost susceptibility between wheat varieties and greater variation between winter crops (for example barley is less susceptible than wheat). If sowing early (for example, in April) selecting a longer season variety, delaying flowering by sowing time and variety choice seems to be ineffective because of the damage from heat and drought.

Residual vulnerability

Although there is less confidence on the likelihood, there is high vulnerability to any increase in frost severity and frequency for many parts of the grains belt. Agronomists working with frost affected farmers refer to both a direct cost of frost damage and an indirect psychological impact on decision making.

4. Changes to seasonal rainfall

Confidence from climate science

Moderate confidence in drying in southern winter growing season, especially spring. Lower confidence for other seasons.

Confidence of impact from crop science

Very high. There are extensive studies that provide a good basis for understanding water productivity of major crops. Growers and agronomists are highly aware of the impact that the timing and amount of rainfall has on yield and profitability.

Management options

More effective storage of water prior to the growing season and then using the water as efficiently as possible by matching sowing time and cultivar to the environment. The impact of dry autumns can be partially offset by sowing part of the cropping program into dry soil. Many southern region grain farmers have improved their water use efficiency by summer weed control, stubble retention and timely sowing. Some growers are using seasonal climate forecasts to adjust their operations.

Residual vulnerability

Very high vulnerability. Although grain growers are highly skilled at managing low rainfall environments, the ongoing profitability of enterprises relies on capturing good seasons and are strongly affected by drier seasons. In medium to higher rainfall parts of the southern grains belt a substantial increase in drier than average growing seasons would greatly reduce confidence in management of input levels. Drier conditions would also reduce the amount of higher return and higher risk broadleaf crops.

5. Changes in the intensity of rainfall

Confidence from climate science

High. A warmer atmosphere contains more energy and will hold more water. This leads to intensification of the hydrological cycle which further increases variability. There is lower confidence in changes to weather systems that bring high or low intensity of rainfall.

Confidence of impact from crop science

High confidence in the impacts of changes to daily intensity. The SA grains belt has numerous low intensity falls (< 5mm) which tend to be inefficient as most of the rainfall wets the surface and is lost in evaporation. A moderate increase in intensity will improve efficiency of soil water gains. An increase in large falls (>20mm) is likely to lead to runoff and erosion and cause problems for operations such as sowing and harvest.

Management options

Stubble retention and other erosion management especially on sloping sites. Many grain growers are using short term weather forecasts to plan operations. This planning leads to improved efficiency and reduces the likelihood of runoff of agricultural chemicals.

Residual vulnerability

Low vulnerability. A modest increase in the intensity of rainfall will be beneficial. There are risks of water erosion but these can be managed with stubble retention which has high levels of adoption and co-benefits of reducing wind and water erosion risk and increasing productivity

6. Elevated levels of carbon dioxide

Confidence from climate science

Very High. Future emissions depend on policy and technology. Although the exact concentration is difficult to predict, there is high confidence that future levels will be higher than present.

Confidence of impact from crop science

High for growth and yield of crops but lower for longer term cropping systems (soil carbon C and N) and grain quality components (for example, protein and its various end use requirements). The growth rate of weeds, pests and disease will also change with elevated CO2.

Management options

Changes in CO2 cannot be considered separately from temperature and water supply, and plant breeding advances cultivars suitable to present day conditions by default. In the future there is likely to be deliberate selection of varieties that respond more positively to elevated CO2. Monitoring of changes to pests and disease and revising nutrition will be essential.

There are some changes such as increase in mean temperature where the confidence from both climate science on projections and agricultural science on impacts are high. This contrasts with changes to rainfall where the confidence in the projections is lower, but the impacts on cropping of changes to rainfall are very well understood. The interaction between these six aspects of climate change is important but uncertain. For example, elevated carbon dioxide is likely to partially offset some of the impacts of a decline in rainfall, but it is less clear how a drier, but carbon dioxide enriched future will respond to a heat wave.

Conclusion

The southern grains industry will continue to deal with a climate that varies year to year and has a warming and most likely a drying trend. Adaptable, information-rich farming systems are needed. Some of the important steps for agronomists and leading farmers are:

  • Understand crop phenology –matching variety to environment. GRDC is investing in projects to better characterise phenology.
  • Make the most of out of season rainfall.
  • Manage the variable seasons through soil moisture monitoring and the use of seasonal climate information.
  • Be vigilant for changes to pests and disease.
  • Be an informed user of climate science.

Being an informed user of climate science is not easy as there is a vast amount of information. It is also difficult to come to terms with a message that increasingly points to a more challenging future. The southern grains industry is exposed and sensitive to climate, but it also has a high level of adaptive capacity. Not only has there been substantial performance in good seasons, the capacity to produce in difficult seasons is impressive. It is important to maintain an appropriate level of optimism. As Puri and Robinson (2007) put it, ‘optimism is like red wine, a glass a day is good for you, but a bottle a day can be hazardous’. From my observations, one of the most effective ways to achieve the appropriate level of optimism, learning and social support is through farming systems groups.

Acknowledgements

The research undertaken as part of this project is made possible by the significant contributions of growers through both trial cooperation and the support of the GRDC, the author would like to thank them for their continued support. Bronya Cooper assisted with preparation of the paper.

References

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Power SB, Delage FPD (2018) El Niño Southern oscillation and associated climatic conditions around the world during the latter half of the twenty-first century. Journal of Climate 31, 6189- 6207.

Puri, Manju & Robinson, T. David. Optimism and economic choice. Journal of Financial Economics. 86, No 1, 71-99, 2007

Turner, B.L., Kasperson, R.E., Matson, P.A., McCarthy, J.J., Corell, R.W., Christensen, L., Eckley, N., Kasperson, J.X., Luers, A., Martello, M.L. and Polsky, C., 2003. A framework for vulnerability analysis in sustainability science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(14), pp.8074-8079.

Contact details

Peter.Hayman@sa.gov.au
0401996448

GRDC Project code: RnD4Profit-16-03-007