September 3

Water Stress Increases Need for Reliable Weather Data to Power US Agriculture

If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water”, wrote Loren Eiseley. As a meteorologist, that quote has stuck with me over the years. But a warmer, more volatile climate is putting Earth’s hydrological cycle on fast-forward. The wets are trending wetter, the dries are drier. We are faced with too much water – or not nearly enough. The western US is enduring a 1200-year “Megadrought”, made worse by climate change. Cities are running out of water; fires and thick palls of smoke have become a daily fixture on local weather maps; all while a 7-8% increase in water vapor overhead fueled by 2F of warming sparks a treadmill of floods east of the Rockies. Welcome to an increasingly all-or-nothing world of weather and water extremes.

Climate Extreme Index Since 1910, showing the percentage of the US experiencing extreme flood or extreme drought. Graphic courtesy of NOAA.

Farmers are witnessing water extremes in their fields – growing the crops the world needs to thrive and survive has never been more challenging. New times require new tools, powered by an army of sensors, next-generation irrigation techniques, and new software solutions better able to manage the weather factors that impact daily operations. It is becoming clear that what worked in the 1980s probably won’t work in the 2020s and beyond. “Farmers have historically relied on a stable climate to align their crop growth cycles and management activities, but with the changing climate growers will increasingly need to rely on data to drive these management decisions”, said Mason Lanphear, Founder of Vital Agronomics LLC, which uses weather data and proprietary software to help farmers manage water risk and maximize yields. “By combining weather forecasts from the AerisWeather platform with granular data from IoT sensors, we can help farmers mitigate these risks and better manage their crops no matter the weather.”

Tracking Evapotranspiration vs. Applied Water. Graphic courtesy of Vital Agronomics.

Vital Agronomics has created next-generation tools to help navigate the full spectrum of weather risk, from water extremes to wildfire smoke and evapotranspiration (ET), the primary source of water loss from crops. The result: data provides the analytics and ground truth to take some of the guesswork out of farming and increase the odds of long-term success. “We leverage machine learning and IoT technology to predict crop ET, and with the AerisWeather platform we can make these predictions well into the future. This enables growers to anticipate water needs for the coming week and make any necessary adjustments. Even for growers without access to irrigation, accurate weather forecasts can aid in herbicide and fertilizer scheduling and provide insight into pest and disease pressures.” Lanphear explained. No, it’s not your grandfather’s weather, and it certainly isn’t your grandfather’s farming experience anymore. The forecast calls for data, software, and analytics to increase the odds of success.

PM2.5 National Air Pollution Averages for the USA since 2004. Source: BerkeleyEarth.org

2021’s has been a surreal summer, a preview of coming attractions with climate volatility and weather disruption. Meteorologists have been tracking hundreds of wildfires, and subsequent plumes of thick, noxious sun-dimming smoke from coast to coast. Data suggests that exposure to PM2.5 particulate matter is not only unhealthy for humans, but can increase the risk of severe symptoms from Covid-19.

Average Number of “Smoke Wave Days” courtesy of Climate Central.

New terms have been popping up in local weather reports: “smoke-waves” and “smoke-days” (schools canceled due to dangerous levels of wildfire smoke). It may be non-obvious, but agriculture is also impacted by smoke, according to Lanphear: “Smoke is a big challenge for our forecasting efforts as it can have a direct impact on local weather conditions. Crop ET is driven by incoming solar radiation, air temperature, humidity and wind speed, all of which can be altered by smoke.” This is a vexing challenge, one that requires creative solutions (and lots of technology) to overcome. “We’re looking at integrating real-time air quality data from localized gas sensors, as well as partnerships with companies like AerisWeather to help improve our forecasts.”

Weather apps are terrific, but they are the meteorological equivalent of junk food, when what is often required is a 5-course meal. Getting current conditions and Doppler radar centered for your hometown adds unquestionable value, but to optimize business operations, a continuous stream of cost-effective weather data is required, with API endpoints tailored for specific challenges and use cases. Increasingly, in a climate flavoring more extremes, nothing can be left to chance. There is also an economic and speed to market value proposition for subscribing to continuous streams of weather data. “One of my reasons for using the AerisWeather API over a free weather forecast was the ability to go to market faster and not have to create a forecast engine in house” Lanphear said.

Predicted Water Stress by 2040 Under a Business-as-Usual Carbon Emission Scenario. Graphic courtesy of The Union of Concerned Scientists.

Effective, actionable water management is emerging as a vital growth industry, worldwide. Things we took for granted 50 years ago can no longer be taken for granted, in a climate that favors more weather and water extremes. Vital Agronomics is at the forefront of managing these weather risks to help farmers achieve maximum yields, no matter what Mother Nature throws at them in their fields. The Pacific Northwest endured record heat during the summer of 2021, and Lanphear envisions more stress on farming in this region, as growing season temperatures warm and winter snowpack in the mountains becomes more erratic. “With less available water resources in the form of snowpack and higher water demand due to increased temperatures, growers will need tools to optimize water consumption in order to ensure a sustainable farming industry for generations to come. I see this as a big challenge but also an opportunity for Vital to help growers adapt to the changing environment.

wildfire in forest

In March of 2021 the United Nations said that natural disasters are occurring three times more often than they did 40 years ago, and that agriculture bears a disproportionate brunt of the financial damage — more than industry, commerce, and tourism combined. Climate change hits home when it – hits home, and America’s agriculture community, the breadbasket of the world, is increasingly threatened by a new level of weather volatility. We can’t change the weather, but it is possible to lower risk and increase the potential for ample crop yields, taking full advantage of entrepreneurs launching a new generation of tools, methods, and materials – all powered by reliable data streams that take some of the guesswork out of age-old question: What will the weather be today?

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