Biogeosciences Research Spotlight

Could Farmers have Dodged the 2012 Great Plains Drought?

A decision-making model to turn seasonal climate forecasts into information farmers actually need.

By

The 2012 Great Plains drought devastated North America’s Midwest and Great Plains, drying up crops and sending the prices soaring for everything from corn to pork. It was, climatologically, one of the worst droughts in the region since the 1890s—even worse than the 1930s’ Dust Bowl. In the media, the drought played out as the great bacon scare of 2012, but for farmers, policy makers, and climate scientists, the drought was a scare of a different kind: Why had no one seen it coming?

According to previous research, operational seasonal climate predictions failed to predict the 2012 drought, leaving farmers in the lurch. Yet not all farmers suffered the same fate. Previously, researchers thought that farmers who grew corn rather than soybeans suffered more because late-season rains kept soybean yields around normal. The reality, however, is that even some corn farmers didn’t lose much, say Shafiee-Jood et al., both because of record-breaking crop insurance paybacks and because of unusually high market prices for corn. It was the corn farmers who made forward contracts with bulk buyers at set prices who suffered most.

The 2012 drought highlighted the disconnect between the data climate forecasters produce and the information farmers need to make decisions. In their research, the authors designed a model that considers seasonal climate forecasts, crop growth predictions, and a decision-making approach to weighting crop insurance, contract pricing, and other factors to turn seasonal weather forecasts into actionable information.

Testing their model for the 2012 drought, however, showed that the reliability of seasonal climate forecasts is still a critical challenge. Because operational climate models were unable to accurately predict the 2012 drought, any follow-up predictions made atop this rocky base are themselves inherently flawed. (Water Resources Research, doi:10.1002/2014WR015822, 2014)

—Colin Schultz, Freelance Writer

Citation: Schultz, C. (2015), Could farmers have dodged the 2012 Great Plains drought?, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO022337.

© 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0