Unstable crop yields reveal opportunities for site-specific adaptations to climate variability.


Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, 48824, USA. [Email]


Water deficit and water excess constitute severe stresses that limit crop yield and are likely to intensify as climate becomes more variable. Regional crop production aggregates for the US Midwest indicate widespread yield losses in past decades due to both extreme rainfall and water limited conditions, though the degree to which these weather impacts are related to site-specific factors such as landscape position and soils has not been examined in a systematic manner. This study offers observational evidence from a large sample of commercial crop fields to support the hypothesis that landscape position is the primary mediator of crop yield responses to weather within unstable field zones (i.e., zones where yields tend to fluctuate between high and low, depending on the year). Results indicate that yield losses in unstable zones driven by water excess and deficits occur throughout a wide range of seasonal rainfall, even simultaneously under normal weather. Field areas prone to water stress are shown to lag as much as 23-33% below the field average during drought years and 26-33% during deluge years. By combining large-scale spatial datasets, we identify 2.65 million hectares of water-stress prone cropland, and estimate an aggregated economic loss impact of $536M USD yr-1, 4.0 million tons yr-1 of less CO2 fixed in crop biomass, and 52.6 Gg yr-1 of more reactive N in the environment. Yield stability maps can be used to spatially implement adaptation practices to mitigate weather-induced stresses in the most vulnerable cropland.

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