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Theses Doctoral

Climate Variability Poses a Correlated Risk to Global Food Production

Anderson, Weston Buckley

The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which refers to a coupling between equatorial Pacific Ocean and atmosphere anomalies, is a major source of interannual climate variability. Although it is fundamentally a tropical Pacific phenomena, both warm (El Niño) and cold (La Niña) events alter atmospheric circulations -- and subsequently temperature and precipitation patterns -- well into the mid- latitudes. Furthermore, both El Niño and La Niña have characteristic multi-year life cycles of sea surface temperature and zonal wind anomalies. The research in this thesis focuses on understanding whether the global teleconnections and multi-year evolution of El Niño and La Niña imposes a risk of synchronous or sequential crop failures relevant to global food production.
In the first chapter, which focuses on maize, wheat and soy in the Americas, we analyze the dynamics underlying ENSO life cycles to illustrate which aspects of the system are most important for agriculture. In North America, the same-season teleconnections affecting soybean and maize have been well studied, but we demonstrate the importance of lagged soil moisture teleconnections for wheat in the southern Great Plains. In South America, peak ENSO sea surface temperature (SST) teleconnections are concurrent with, and therefore critical for, wheat and maize growing seasons while soil moisture memory in Argentina plays an important role during the soybean growing season
In the second chapter we show how the teleconnections from chapter one lead to correlated crop production anomalies in North and South America. We estimate the magnitude of ENSO-induced Pan-American production anomalies and discuss how increasing crop harvesting frequency may affect Pan-American production variability. We find that ENSO-induced production anomalies are greatest for maize, with median anomalies of about 5% of Pan-American production. After broadly characterizing ENSO-induced production anomalies, we demonstrate that they are not static in time. Increasing crop harvesting frequency in Brazil has affected the correlated risks posed by ENSO to soybeans and maize.
In the third chapter we expand our analysis of agriculturally relevant teleconnections to the greater Pacific Basin region, and move beyond observations into model simulations. In this chapter we propose a coherent framework for understanding how trans-Pacific ENSO teleconnections pose a correlated risk to crop yields in major agricultural belts of the Americas, Australia and China over the course of an ENSO life cycle. The potential for consecutive ENSO-induced yield anomalies is of particular interest in these major food producing areas, where modest changes in yield have significant effects on global markets. We demonstrate that ENSO teleconnections relevant for crop flowering seasons are the result of a single trans-Pacific circulation anomaly that develops in boreal summer and persists through the following spring. These trans-Pacific ENSO teleconnections are often (but not always) offsetting between major producing regions in the Americas and those in northern China or Australia. Multi-year La Niñas, however, only tend to force multi-year growing season anomalies in Argentina and Australia.
In our final chapter we estimate of the relative contribution of major modes of climate variability to crop yield variability at the global scale. We consider the influence of not only ENSO, but also the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), tropical Atlantic variability (TAV) and the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). We find that modes of climate variability account for 18.4%, 7.4% and 5.4% of globally aggregated maize, soy and wheat production variability, respectively. All modes of variability are important in at least one region studied, but only ENSO has a significant influence on global production. The low fractions of global-scale soy and wheat production variability attributable to climate is a result of significant but offsetting ENSO-induced yield anomalies in major production regions. Our findings represent an observationally-derived limit on the importance of climate variability to crop production stability that is not dependent on the fidelity of present generation of climate or crop models.
In terms of synchronous crop failures within a single harvest year, we find that ENSO poses a significant correlated risk to maize yields but that it has a much smaller effect on global wheat and soy production. ENSO-forced maize production anomalies offset less than wheat and soy at the global scale because production is concentrated in regions with same-sign yield anomalies, notably the United States and Southeast Africa. To illustrate this point, we show that ENSO is largely responsible for the largest synchronous maize failure in the post-1960 historical record. These results demonstrate how the distribution of global cropland in relation to ENSO teleconnections contributes significantly to the presence for maize or absence for wheat and soy of synchronous global crop failures


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Earth and Environmental Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Seager, Richard
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 7, 2018