WVU Researcher Sees Positive Implications of Climate Change

Climate change tends to either elicit end-of-the-world anxiety or brazen cynicism. Jason Hubbart, Director of Institute of Water Security and Science at West Virginia University, offers a more pinpointed approach.

Jason Hubbart, director of the WVU Institute of Water Security and Science, conducts water testing at West Run Creek for research. (Image credit: Greg Ellis/West Virginia University)

Hubbart has explored the unquestionable changing patterns in West Virginia’s climate. In reality, there is at least one silver lining stemming from varying climate, he asserts: The growing season is becoming longer.

Our future climates in West Virginia are likely to be more conducive to agricultural production. We should plan for that now.

Jason Hubbart, Director of Institute of Water Security and Science, West Virginia University

Hubbart is also a professor of hydrology and water quality in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.

In the study published in Regional Environmental Change, and the journals Water and Climate, Hubbart learned that, between 1900 and 2016, the highest temperatures in West Virginia trended downward, average minimum temperatures soared, and annual precipitation increased. Particularly, precipitation grew about an inch each of the last few several years.

That means, West Virginians are currently, on average, witnessing warmer winters, cooler summers, and wetter weather.

Corresponding with those trends, big variations have taken place in agriculture. Yield for corn and hay, which have traditionally been bread-and-butter resources for the state, have increased, yet 23% more sluggish than the national average; conversely, yields of other crops, including soybeans and winter wheat, have increased 15% faster than the nationwide average.

Based on his results, “It’s time to rethink farming in West Virginia,” said Hubbart, who spent his childhood on a 2,000-acre dairy farm near Spokane, Washington.

Hubbart explained in detail why traditional West Virginia crops are not doing well but others, formerly not prominent, have increased their potential.

Some areas of West Virginia are too drenched or flooded all the time,” he said. “Because it’s wetter, we’ve seen a decline in crops like hay and corn.”

An uptick in humidity—a result of climate change in a number of regions—plays a role in the declining performance of traditional West Virginia crops. More humidity reduces vapor-pressure deficit, which is the difference between the amount of moisture in the air and how much moisture the air can contain (that is, saturation).

Air saturation causes water to condense out and form clouds, change into precipitation, and form dew or films of water across the leaves of a plant. More notably, when the air is saturated (nearing 100% humidity), plants have a lot more difficult time transpiring (transporting water from the leaf to atmosphere). Thus, the plants also have trouble keeping cool, conveying nutrients, and photosynthesizing. For many traditional agricultural crops, future climates may result in lower productivity.

Alfalfa and corn, for example, require plenty of water. Those plants use energy to form biomass and sugars. If it gets very hot, output can slow because they cannot transfer water up the plant and out the stomates, Hubbart explained. Finally, though West Virginia is witnessing more precipitation, the increased humidity decelerates the transfer of water from the plant to the atmosphere.

Nevertheless, that does not mean death to West Virginia agriculture. Crops that do not need as much water (through transpiration), or flourish in long summers, short winters, or moderate temperatures, could help transform the state around, Hubbart believes.

The winter season has reduced by nearly 20 days, according to Hubbart’s study, and the minimum (and winter) temperatures have turned out to be warmer. The growing season itself has improved by about 13 days.

Winter wheat and soy bean crops are just a couple of examples of future agricultural investment. Those crops, and many broadleafs do well in short winters. Basil, specialty teas, specialty vegetables, those are plants that have had trouble growing here historically, but now, and in the future, they may fare better. We can diversify our crops more. West Virginia should be thinking strategically about which crops to grow in what locations.

Jason Hubbart, Director of Institute of Water Security and Science, West Virginia University

Findings in his study also propose the possibility of double-cropping, meaning that the growing seasons are spreading long enough to raise a single crop and harvest it and then raise another crop and harvest it, too, within the same year.

Doing that, obviously, increases economic revenue and provides local food supplies that could greatly improve access to fresh vegetables to our citizens,” Hubbart said. That’s more than just a bit of good news.”

Hubbart’s findings stem from over 90 years’ worth of observed weather data from climate stations on the ground across Appalachia and West Virginia. While certain research depends on climate models using data from more distant locations and predictions based on those models that frequently are not accurate, these outcomes are based on actual observed long-term West Virginia data, he said.

While other climate research predicts drier climates and the arrival of food deserts, Hubbart’s study specifies quite the opposite.

West Virginia is a beautiful state with so much to look forward to. Our great scientists are making incredible progress in agriculture, food deserts, agricultural economics, etc. We need to celebrate our current successes and how we can use those successes in what I view as a very bright agricultural future for our state.

Jason Hubbart, Director of Institute of Water Security and Science, West Virginia University

Hubbart added, “My results indicate that future climates will facilitate higher productivity and new crops, both of which could create an economic boom for West Virginia, reduce food desert issues and broadly improve the human condition in our state.”

Source: https://www.wvu.edu

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