SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Range for wheat is creeping northward


January 02, 2007
Tuesday PM

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Are there amber waves of grain in Alaska's future? Given the current rate of global warming, the answer might be yes.

That according to a new study that predicts that higher temperatures in North America will make it difficult to grow some varieties of wheat in the Lower 48 states by 2050.

By the same measure, however, the more northerly latitudes of Canada and Alaska should be ideal, according to an upcoming report by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico City.

Unfortunately for Canada, climate isn't everything. Soil conditions matter too. And the rocky terrain and thin soils of the eastern provinces - what geologists call the Canadian Shield - aren't considered suitable for grain production.

But Alaska is a different story. The fertile loam of the Matanuska Valley "has the color and consistency of Hershey's cocoa and is rockless two feet down," geology buff John McPhee wrote in "Coming into the Country," his nonfiction best seller on Alaska.

A colony of federally funded farms that sprouted around Palmer during the Great Depression tried to take advantage of those conditions. While some of them succeeded, a majority didn't - and Alaska has remained mostly unplowed.

Still, the strawberries that grow in the Matanuska Valley are "delicious enough to make you drunk," McPhee added. "You can grow ... wheat, barley, alfalfa, oats and white sweet clover eight feet high. Peas are particularly sweet and aromatic. There is virtually no need for pesticides."

What there is a need for here, farmers say, is a longer growing season and a slightly drier climate in the wet regions of Southcentral Alaska.

That could be in the offing if global warming continues, according to the Mexico City study, which is currently undergoing peer review and not ready for publication.

In an e-mail message from Peru, lead author Rodomiro Ortiz said his study uses a widely accepted climate-change model that assumes a doubling of global carbon dioxide by 2050 (from baseline levels that existed for centuries prior to 1800).

With temperatures rising as a result, the current northern limit for growing wheat in North America would shift from 55 degrees north (about the latitude of Edmonton, Alberta) to 65 degrees north (about the latitude of Fairbanks).

Such calculations assume that Alaska's wheat be spring-sown and harvested before winter, as opposed to southern climes, where some varieties of wheat can be grown in winter months.

Word of the research first appeared online in a recent BBC News article, which said the study warns that global warming will devastate agriculture in southern latitudes unless scientists can create new strains of wheat to withstand warmer temperatures.

Most significant, the study predicts that the climatic area suitable for growing wheat in South Asia will shrink by about half in the next 50 years. Billions of people in developing nations near the tropics will be severely challenged as crop yields decline due to shorter growing seasons, the story said.

Conversely, rising temperatures in far northern latitudes will open up areas of Siberia, Canada and Alaska that are currently too cold for wheat cultivation. An accompanying map that illustrates that shift shows a California-sized swath of Interior Alaska - stretching from Bristol Bay to the Canadian border - that would have the climate (if not the soils or infrastructure) to grow wheat by 2050.

The new study isn't the first to reach that conclusion, said Mike Listman, a spokesman for the grain center. Authors of a 2002 study commissioned by the United Nations predicted a similar wheat-growing climate for Alaska and Canada by 2080, using a different climate change model.

And some Alaska farmers and agricultural officials say such effects are already under way.

"I know that as a boy, I can remember when we would consider early- to mid-September as the time to be serious about harvesting carrots - and especially potatoes," recalls Larry DeVilbiss, director of the state Division of Agriculture, who grew up in the Valley on a potato and dairy farm.

"But I know now that we expect to be digging carrots until the middle of October, and even potatoes up into the early part of October. And I know that would have been exceptionally foolhardy in the 1950s.


Editor's Note:

According to a Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research news release, as a result of rising temperatures, the climatic conditions best suited to wheat growing will shift away from the tropics - where most of the world's poorest countries are situated-toward the poles and to higher elevations.

According to the study, North American wheat growers will be able to farm new lands as far as 65 degrees north, 10 degrees beyond their current planting limit. In North America, wheat growing would extend from its current limit ­ extending from Ketchikan, Alaska in the West to Cape Harrison, Labrador in the East ­ to less than two degrees beneath the Arctic Circle.

In Eurasia, much of Siberia would become farmland. While poor tropical countries' capacity for food production will diminish, developed countries-most of which are located far from the equator-will, in many cases, experience an increase in productive capacity as land that was previously frost-bound opens to cultivation.

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Scripps-McClatchy Western Service,

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