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Global warming heats up Inland NW ag research

Curt Acuff spreads herbicide in a wheat stubble field in the Reardan area Monday. Farmers and scientists from Washington, Idaho and Oregon will participate in a $20 million, five-year study of climate change and its potential effect on the Northwest wheat industry. (Jesse Tinsley)
Curt Acuff spreads herbicide in a wheat stubble field in the Reardan area Monday. Farmers and scientists from Washington, Idaho and Oregon will participate in a $20 million, five-year study of climate change and its potential effect on the Northwest wheat industry. (Jesse Tinsley)

The Inland Northwest has been going through one of its coolest and wettest springs ever while farmers and scientists are convening this week to launch a $20 million research program on climate change.

Nearly 100 researchers and farmers from across the region met Monday at the University of Idaho, where the five-year research program is getting under way. They want to learn new ways to adapt farming to a warming climate.

“Climate change is one of the challenges that faces the sustainability of agriculture in this region,” said UI professor Scott Eigenbrode, who is leading the project.

Funding for the Regional Approaches to Climate Change project comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Temperatures in the Inland Northwest are already up about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit on average in the past century, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is predicting that the temperature will increase another 3.6 degrees by 2050, Eigenbrode said.

Winter precipitation is predicted to increase by 5 percent, but summer rainfall could drop by 5 to 20 percent, he said.

Warmer summer temperatures could spell problems for grains and other crops that will face increased heat and water stress.

“Applying the best science in partnership with the agriculture industry here is prudent,” said Eigenbrode, a plant entomologist.

There is a risk that pests such as the cereal leaf beetle, Hessian fly and aphids could worsen with a warmer climate, he said. Pathogens carried by aphids might also be aggravated.

The barley yellow dwarf virus so far has not been a problem in this region, Eigenbrode said.

Only a small portion of the project is aimed at studying pests. The funding also will go into studying cropping systems, soil conservation, weed infestation and soil fertility.

The project team includes more than 30 scientists from UI, Washington State University and Oregon State University.

Sales of cereal grains were worth $1.5 billion to the Pacific Northwest economy in 2009 and accounted for 13 percent of the nation’s wheat crop, according to the project.

The project builds on earlier work done through the Climate Friendly Farming project at WSU as well as the Solutions to Environmental and Economic Problems involving the three universities over the past four decades.

The latter project has promoted seed drilling to reduce soil erosion. It also allows carbon to be reintroduced to the soil, thereby reducing carbon dioxide in the air, a chief component of global warming.

Dick Wittman, a farmer in Culdesac, Idaho, east of Lewiston, is serving on an advisory committee for the research project. He also is a founding member and director of the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association. He has worked on agriculture issues on a national scale.

“Many are in denial that climate change is even a reality and many more argue about what is causing it,” Wittman said Monday in an email. “Scientific studies conclusively show increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that can’t be ignored,” he said.

Commodity research groups are already looking for ways to make wheat more tolerant of higher summer temperatures.

Wittman called the USDA grant “a welcome and timely opportunity.”

Most of the Pacific Northwest has undergone a cool, wet spring following a winter that brought above-normal precipitation as a result of La Niña cooling in the tropical Pacific.

The 3.25 inches of precipitation in Spokane in March was the third wettest March on record. April was the second coldest on record in Spokane, with an average temperature of 41.5 degrees.

And the first day this spring to reach 60 degrees in Spokane was April 24 – the latest date on record.

The number of “growing degree days” – a measure of plant growth – was less than half of normal in Spokane from March 1 through May 7.

Professor Bob Quinn at EWU said a cold water pool off the West Coast has contributed a more northwesterly storm track out of the Gulf of Alaska. He said the cold water pool is breaking up and expects late spring and summer to bring more normal weather.

Karin Bumbaco, assistant Washington state climatologist, said researchers are examining the possibility that global warming is accelerating the occurrences of severe weather around the globe. She pointed to drought and fires in Texas and the Southeast this year as examples.

“Just because you have a cool April doesn’t disprove global warming,” Bumbaco said.

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