Repeat of 1930s Dust Bowl drought would have 'extreme' effects on modern food systems

If global warming continues as projected, the risks will be even greater

Despite nearly a century of technological advance, modern agricultural systems in North America are just as vulnerable to the damaging effects of a 1930s-style Dust Bowl drought.

Scientists from the University of Chicago's Computation Institute created models of how the severe weather might, and found that the impact could be equally damaging.

"The 1930s were really extreme and, yes, the chances of the same precipitation distribution happening again are small," explained Joshua Elliott, a research scientist at the university, as part of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"But the temperature distribution wasn't any more extreme than we've seen in 2012 or 1998, for example.

"And what we see at higher temperatures is that these crops - maize and also soy - are so sensitive that an average year come mid-century could be as bad as 1936, even with normal precipitation," he told BBC News.

The research shows that even small changes in temperature could have a large impact on the effects, meaning that if global warming does continue as project, potential losses would be far worse.

Around 40 per cent of maize production would be lost if there was a repeat of the 1930s drought today. If there were to be a 2 degree increase in average global temperatures, the team project it would become a 65 per cent reduction.

Last year’s hugely significant Paris Agreement, however, only got the 195 world leaders to sign up to a global warming target of limiting rises between 1.5C to 2C, and with no guarantee of this being sustained.

Dr Elliott was part of a joint US-UK taskforce that last year assessed the resilience of the global food system. The consequences of extreme weather was considered a major concern, especially if future climate change is not moderated by a reduction in the use of fossil fuels.

After assessing the production of the world’s major staple grains – rice, wheat, maize and soybeans – the taskforce's scientists found that the likelihood of a one-in-100-year production disruption would increase threefold by 2040.

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