I know a stiff wind. They call this place Storm Lake, after all. But until recently most Iowans had never heard of a “derecho”. They have now. Last Monday, a derecho tore 770 miles from Nebraska to Indiana and left a path of destruction up to 50 miles wide over 10m acres of prime cropland. It blew 113 miles per hour at the Quad Cities on the Mississippi River.
Grain bins were crumpled like aluminum foil. Three hundred thousand people remained without power in Iowa and Illinois on Friday. Cedar Rapids and Iowa City were devastated.
The corn lay flat.
Iowa’s maize yield may be cut in half. A little napkin ciphering tells me the Tall Corn State will lose $6 billion from crop damage alone.
We should get used to it. Extreme weather is the new normal. Last year, the villages of Hamburg and Pacific Junction, Iowa, were washed down the Missouri River from epic floods that scoured tens of thousands of acres. This year, the Great Plains are burning up from drought. Western Iowa was steeped in severe drought when those straight-line winds barreled through the weak stalks.
A multi-decade drought is under way in the Central Plains and the south-west. Wildfires are spreading from Arizona to California, and are burning ridges north of Los Angeles not licked by flames since 1968. Cattle in huge Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma feedlots will drink the Ogallala Aquifer dry in 20 years. This drought, which could rival or exceed the Medieval Drought that occurred about AD 1200, could last 30 to 50 years, according to research from the Goddard Space Institute. It will become difficult to grow corn in southern Iowa, and impossible in western Kansas. By mid-century, corn yields could decline by 30%, according to the Iowa State University climatologist Dr Gene Takle.
Takle notes that the 20th century was the wettest on record. This could be the driest.
“The last century was our Goldilocks period,” Takle said. “Just right. And that period is coming to an end.”
We have cyclone bombs in winter and derechos on top of tornadoes. We have 500-year floods every 10 years. And we have a steady increase in night-time temperatures and humidity that makes it difficult for the corn to breathe even with the latest in genetic engineering. Protein content in the kernel is falling. Livestock and plants fall prey to new diseases and pests along with extreme heat stress.
It will lead to a reckoning more quickly than most of us realize.
The pandemic exposed the fragility of the food supply when meat processing plants teetered last spring for lack of healthy workers. Prices shot up 50% at the grocery counter.
Farmers didn’t share in that windfall. Corn prices are at a 10-year low in a broken industrial system propped up by government design.
When Takle was a teenager, baling hay in 1960, there were 18-20 days a year when the temperature would get above 90 degrees. By the end of the century, Takle warns, this region could be scorched by temperatures over 100 degrees 50 to 60 days a year.
Soil that can hold water and defy heat is losing that capacity to erosion driven by extreme rains. Poor soil, combined with the extreme heat Takle describes, assures crop failures. Takle said corn crops could fail every other year if we go on with “business as usual” pumping out carbon.
It’s already happening in Latin America. Decades of drought are driving Guatemalan campesino refugees to Storm Lake to work in meatpacking. Similarly, epic migrations were driven by the Medieval Drought. It is believed that the Mill Creek people who settled here were driven north up the Missouri River to the Dakotas as they were droughted out of Iowa. That drought also led to wars in Europe, not unlike the contemporary conflicts and migrations in Africa whose roots are in failing agricultural and food systems.
The impacts of climate change are real and profound for our most basic industry: food. Fortunately, sound science tells us that we can make a real impact on climate change by planting less corn and more grass that sequesters carbon. Paying farmers to build soil health and retain water is a better investment than writing a crop insurance check for drought. Farmers on the frontlines of climate change are trying to become more resilient to extreme weather by planting permanent grass strips in crop fields, and planting cover crops for the winter that suck up nitrogen and CO2. The rate of adaptation would be quickened if conservation funding programs were not always under attack.
The derecho is yet another destructive reminder that heat leading to extreme storms will destroy our very food sources if we don’t face the climate crisis now.
- Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times in north-west Iowa, where he won the Pulitzer prize for editorials on agriculture and the environment. He is a Guardian US columnist and author of the book, Storm Lake: Change, Resilience, and Hope in America’s Heartland