Theses Doctoral

New insights on how changing hydroclimate might affect crop yields -- and a way to avoid the worst of it

Lesk, Corey Samuel

Climate change threatens global food security by increasing extreme-weather shocks and reducing the productivity of major global crops. While recent research has highlighted the risk of rising extreme heat, comparatively little is known about how the intensity distribution of rainfall, and rainfall’s interactions with heat, influence global crops. Further, as the broader climate transition gains momentum, the industrial activities needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change will emit CO₂. These emissions remain unquantified and largely ignored in research and policy, and thus present an under-assessed risk to crops and society at large.This thesis advances the understanding of present and future agricultural risks from two aspects of hydroclimatic complexity: hourly rainfall intensity and temperature-moisture (T-M) couplings. Both aspects are expected to shift under climate change, with highly uncertain crop impacts. It further simulates the adaptation and mitigation emissions embedded in the broader climate transition, illuminating a previously under-appreciated benefit of enhance climate ambition.

Climate warming is expected to intensify rainfall, decreasing the frequency of drizzle while boosting heavy and extreme events. I show that surprisingly heavy rainfall is optimal for US maize and soy yields, with yield loss due to drizzle and very extreme downpours. As a result, the future concentration of rainfall into fewer, heavier hourly events will benefit crop yields 2-3%, partly offsetting larger damages from warming.

T-M couplings arising from land-air interactions and atmospheric circulation may shift under 21st Century warming, altering the likelihood of concurrent heat and drought extremes, with uncertain risks to crops. I demonstrate that maize and soy grown in regions with strong T-M couplings historically suffered enhanced crop sensitivity to heat. These couplings will strengthen over most of global croplands this century, worsening the impact of warming on crops by 5% globally, with large regional variations.

The energetic demands of the broader climate transition – such as steel for wind turbines, and concrete for coastal barriers – will initially be satisfied by fossil fuels. I show that simulated mitigation and adaptation will emit 185GtCO₂ by 2100 under a transition path consistent with current policies (~2.7°C warming by 2100), equivalent to half the remaining carbon budget for 1.5°C. However, these emissions can be reduced by 90% under a 1.5°C transition path, a previously unidentified co-benefit of enhanced climate ambition.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Earth and Environmental Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Horton, Radley M.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 8, 2022