Kansas State research: Growing frequency of dry, hot and windy conditions damage wheat yields

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Environmental triple-threat most impactful driver of winter wheat losses

TOPEKA — The compounding influence of adverse dry, hot and windy climate patterns slashed wheat yield 4% in Kansas and five other Great Plains states over the past 40 years, Kansas State University researchers reported in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

Xiaomao Lin, professor of agricultural climatology, said the study was the first to quantify a connection between change in the nation’s climate and wheat production. The simultaneous combination of low relative humidity with high temperatures and strong winds were shown to be a negative climate risk in terms of yields.

He said the number of hot-dry-windy events – otherwise known as HDWs – that undermine yield significantly ramped up in the U.S. Great Plains. The study focused on an El Nino-like pattern’s influence on wheat production from 1982 to 2020 in Nebraska, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, South Dakota and Kansas.

“The HDW events were the most impactful drivers for winter wheat loss,” Lin said. “As climates change, temperature and precipitation are heading in opposite directions over the U.S. Great Plains. Irregular droughts and expanded croplands are driving growing environmental problems, such as frequent dust storms. Greenhouse gases are making heat waves more frequent.”

University researchers developed a statistical model that examined per-county winter wheat yields and information on combinations of hot, dry and windy events during different plant growth stages, years and locations. They also took into account improvements of crop breeding and field crop management.

The findings of Kansas State researchers would be important to farmers striving to understand how climate change could disrupt crop yields and whether those conditions were expected to increase in intensity or frequency.

“Future climate change threats will depend on greenhouse gas emissions and pathways that are implemented to mitigate them, such as burning less fossil fuel and adjusting climate-informed planting dates and cultivars,” said Lin, the agricultural climatologist. “It will be important to develop climate-resilient agricultural practices.”

Fourteen researchers involved with the Nature Communications article set out to study whether HDW variables had increased in the Great Plains.

Hot, dry and windy events were linked across the U.S. winter wheat belt, but the main affected areas were in southwest Kansas and the panhandle areas of Oklahoma and Texas. This aligned with locations where the Dust Bowl was prominent in the 1930s, said Haidong Zhao, a doctoral student in agronomy and the article’s lead author.

Raj Khosla, head of Kansas State’s agronomy department, said the study was “a testament of complex, multi-disciplinary work our faculty are accomplishing to assist our farmers in understanding wicked climate patterns and challenges related to climate, and how they can prepare themselves and their operations to respond to such challenges.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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