Article | Published:

Cooling of US Midwest summer temperature extremes from cropland intensification

Nature Climate Change volume 6, pages 317322 (2016) | Download Citation

Abstract

High temperature extremes during the growing season can reduce agricultural production. At the same time, agricultural practices can modify temperatures by altering the surface energy budget. Here we identify centennial trends towards more favourable growing conditions in the US Midwest, including cooler summer temperature extremes and increased precipitation, and investigate the origins of these shifts. Statistically significant correspondence is found between the cooling pattern and trends in cropland intensification, as well as with trends towards greater irrigated land over a small subset of the domain. Land conversion to cropland, often considered an important influence on historical temperatures, is not significantly associated with cooling. We suggest that agricultural intensification increases the potential for evapotranspiration, leading to cooler temperatures and contributing to increased precipitation. The tendency for greater evapotranspiration on hotter days is consistent with our finding that cooling trends are greatest for the highest temperature percentiles. Temperatures over rainfed croplands show no cooling trend during drought conditions, consistent with evapotranspiration requiring adequate soil moisture, and implying that modern drought events feature greater warming as baseline cooler temperatures revert to historically high extremes.

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Acknowledgements

We thank F. Rockwell, T. Sinclair, L. Mickley, K. Harding, T. Twine, P. Snyder and C. O’Connell for helpful discussions. We thank N. Ramankutty for sharing the updated historical cropland data set. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (Hydrologic Sciences grant 1521210) and by a fellowship from the Harvard University Center for the Environment to N.D.M.

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Affiliations

  1. Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Harvard University, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • Nathaniel D. Mueller
    • , Ethan E. Butler
    • , Karen A. McKinnon
    • , Andrew Rhines
    •  & Peter Huybers
  2. Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • Nathaniel D. Mueller
    •  & N. Michele Holbrook
  3. Department of Forest Resources, University of Minnesota, Minnesota 55108, USA

    • Ethan E. Butler
  4. Departments of Meteorology and Statistics, The Pennsylvania State University, Pennsylvania 16802, USA

    • Martin Tingley

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Contributions

N.D.M., P.H., N.M.H. and E.E.B. conceived of the study. A.R., K.A.M., M.T. and P.H. developed the precision-decoding necessary to enable quantile regression. N.D.M. led data analysis, with assistance from P.H., E.E.B. and A.R. N.D.M., P.H. and N.M.H. led writing and interpretation of the results, with assistance from E.E.B., A.R., K.A.M. and M.T.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nathaniel D. Mueller.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2825

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