From Russia: More Heat, Less Wheat

David Lobell

By David Lobell

The heat wave in Russia has captured international media attention, breaking temperature records left and right (see figure below). It has also captured the attention of commodity traders. You see, in a typical year Russia produces about as much wheat as the United States, and is among the top exporters of wheat flour in the world. But this year, wheat has been decimated in the areas around Moscow, with yield expected to be 30 percent or so below normal. This week Russia announced they are banning all exports of wheat from August 15 through the end of the year. Since late June, wheat prices on the Chicago Board of Trade have risen by 50 percent, to more than $7 a bushel.

It is, and always will be, impossible to say whether a single event is caused by climate change. But we can ask, is this the type of thing we expect to be more common? In terms of warming, we can say with little doubt that heat waves like this will become more common with global warming. Exactly how much more common is tough to say, but it is likely that the average summer in 2050 will be as warm as the warmest summer in the 20th century. I am not aware of anyone who has done the calculation of exactly how common the type of heat experienced this year will be, but based on projections in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports one can suspect this type of heat wave will be relatively common in Russia in a few decades.

Land Surface Temperatures, Early July 2010
Land Surface Temperatures, Early July 2010
Land Surface Temperature Departures from Average, Early July 2010.
Credit: NASA Earth Observatiory

What about the impacts on agriculture — will the types of price spikes induced by this heat wave also be more common in the future? This is a much more complicated question (not that the first was simple!), because it involves decisions about what crops are being grown, where and how they are being cultivated, and how global markets are structured. It has been common in some circles to dismiss impacts on agriculture as easy to adapt to, whereas others prefer to assume more pessimistic views.

The reality will likely be somewhere in between, but exactly where is still very difficult to say. This is partly because there is so little evidence on how well farmers and the companies that service them are adapting to current changes. After the dust has settled in Russia, will farmers start to rethink what seeds they grow and how they manage the land, or will they chalk it up to bad luck and hope for the best next year? This is a story playing out throughout the world, but it’s a lot more difficult to observe and understand than something like temperature change.

Even if people are galvanized to adapt, there remains the question of how much adaptation is truly possible. Can wheat, a crop that prefers cooler climates, be modified to better withstand extremely high temperatures? To some degree the answer is surely yes, but how much and where is not clear. So while efforts to adapt are needed, there are big risks in relying on that and ignoring the need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. A recent National Academy of Sciences report I participated in explains exactly what’s at stake if we don’t begin to reign in emissions.

In short, it would be similar to a global game of Russian roulette.

The Silver Lining

The news is not all bad. For one, there are winners in this story, just like there will be winners from climate change. Consider a wheat farmer in the US, who expects good yields this year and will greatly benefit from higher international prices. Of course, next year it could be the US’s turn for a major drought or heat wave in the Plains, but for now they will gain.

More importantly, each major event raises the possibility that more people will raise their head out of the sand and understand that climate is changing. Although a single event can only advance science a small amount (which is why scientists rely on many, many observations and models), public perception is a different animal. As noted by Simon Shuster in Time, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has been a critic of any action on global warming, and recently described it as “some kind of tricky campaign made up by some commercial structures to promote their business projects.” But in a recent statement during the heat wave, Medvedev struck a very different note: “What's happening with the planet's climate right now needs to be a wake-up call to all of us, meaning all heads of state, all heads of social organizations, in order to take a more energetic approach to countering the global changes to the climate.” Such words are encouraging, for the sooner people can stop denying the science, the sooner the public and policy makers can have an honest debate about tradeoffs and acceptable risks and policy options. The choices won’t be easy, but neither is growing wheat in 100˚F heat.

David Lobell is an Assistant Professor at Stanford University in Environmental Earth System Science, and a Center Fellow in Stanford's Program on Food Security and the Environment. His research focuses on identifying opportunities to raise crop yields in major agricultural regions, with a particular emphasis on adaptation to climate change. His current projects span Africa, South Asia, Mexico, and the United States, and involve a range of tools including remote sensing, GIS, and crop and climate models.

Homepage photo credit: Florian Siebeck