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Cattle call. New U.S. data hubs could help livestock ranchers prepare their herds for climate change.

Cattle call. New U.S. data hubs could help livestock ranchers prepare their herds for climate change.

USDA/Keith Weller

New U.S. 'Climate Hubs' to Provide Data to Farmers

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) wants to provide more useful data on climate to farmers, ranchers, and others affected by climate change. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced yesterday that he is designating seven so-called Climate Hubs at federal agriculture laboratories across the country that will seek to create more useful climate data and disseminate it more broadly.

USDA already dedicates about $120 million to climate research, Vilsack told reporters at a press briefing. The new effort “will add on top of that,” he said. But initially the addition will most likely involve reassignment of USDA research personnel and funding, officials say, not new money. The shifted resources will be used to build websites, convene groups of stakeholders, and possibly create new forecasts, databases, and other tools. The hope is that the work will better inform scientists within USDA and other departments on what farmers, ranchers, and foresters need to know to prepare and adapt to a shifting reality.

The nation must “be able to adapt and mitigate, because if we don’t, our economy is going to be impacted," Vilsack said at the White House yesterday. "Those 16 million people that are depending upon agriculture and forestry, they want to make sure that they continue to have a job because we’re continuing to produce and create new products."

“USDA hasn’t really prioritized getting this information to stakeholders before,” says agricultural meteorologist Eugene Takle of Iowa State University in Ames.

Among those with new marching orders is research meteorologist Jeanne Schneider of USDA’s Grazinglands Research Laboratory in El Reno, Oklahoma. Of late she’s been publishing research on the usefulness of federal forecast data for agricultural decisions, but the announcement that her lab will host one of the new hubs switches her from a research to an outreach role. As leader of the hub, she’ll be able to call on tech assistance, secretarial time, and portions of her colleagues’ time to launch a website and new databases on relevant projects, experts, and data sources. “We hope to be a convening force, which should help people within the farming, ranching, and research communities know what others are doing," she says. Such collaborations also will hopefully strengthen applications for other federal research funding, she adds.

Such relationships have been a staple of the extension system which has linked USDA, local farmers, and universities since the 19th century. But agriculture data and outreach specialist Al Sutherland of Oklahoma State University (OSU) says a deeper role for the feds could be beneficial for farmers. For example, hubs could help visualize data in ways that make it more useful to the public (such as in the case of this graph of precipitation data).

Researchers have long had access to such data, but it hasn’t “been put into this kind of picture that people could readily understand,” says Sutherland, who works at OSU's Mesonet, which creates forecasts and other “data products” using weather stations and federal climatological data. (The precipitation and temperature data are updated yearly here.)

For example, in the case of the precipitation data—which was first publicized in 2004—both scientists and farmers had been thinking in terms of widely available 30-year averages, which can be misleading.  In contrast, the new 100-year perspective showed a local wheat breeder, for example, that the cultivars he had been developing over the previous decades were biased toward conditions wetter than the average over the previous century. Oklahoma’s historical fluctuations into drought conditions were suddenly apparent. The wheat breeder “immediately added a drought assessment of the wheat strains to his tasks," Sutherland says.

That move now seems prescient, because parts of Oklahoma have subsequently fallen into serious drought. By the same token, farmers and ranchers realized that their management practices and the varieties of crops they grew had been developed during an extended wet spell.

Federally provided temperature data stretching back to 1895 has also provided important context for farmers thinking about future climate change, Sutherland says. The data give farmers a sense of the natural range of temperature—it shows that the coolest year was 14°C (57°F) on average and the warmest year 17°C (63°F). Over the next century, climate model scenarios predict the state’s average temperatures could increase by about 1.6° to 5°C (3° to 9°F). That means that future years could be warmer than the warmest years experienced in the temperature record.   

Similar insights from the new hubs could help farmers and scientists together plan for impacts on cattle, grasslands, and so-called farm ponds, which provide water to cattle on open ranges and can dry out during drought conditions. Sutherland says that it is “a good thing that the USDA is formalizing and hopefully expanding its efforts in these areas."

Matthew Stepp, an analyst at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank, liked the move but in a statement said the United States also needs “to invest more in global Earth observation programs and monitoring systems that can provide the macro-level data necessary to prepare for rapid changes in the global environment and reduce associated impacts.”