Climate Cast: Is Minnesota the new Nebraska for irrigated crops?

Climate change in action?

You've see those green circles from 30,000 feet up as you fly over Nebraska. The circular irrigation systems pump billions of gallons of water to create fields of green where there was once dryness.

CC Nebraska irrigation circles
Irrigation 'circles' in central Nebraska. Image: Google Earth

My colleague, MPR News reporter Mark Steil, produced an excellent piece this week on how crop irrigation is exploding in Minnesota.

Recent climate trends over the past two decades have brought changes in rainfall patterns across Minnesota. It's raining less often with longer dry spells in between. The term "flash drought" has emerged recently in Minnesota's weather lexicon.

When it does rain, it's raining harder with more rapid runoff -- and fewer soaking rains. That's not ideal for Minnesota's row crops like corn and soybeans which thrive on regular soaking rains to achieve maximum yield. Now, Minnesota is seeing an explosion of crop irrigation systems.

1408 irrigator
An irrigation system, whose owner was cited last year for illegally using it without the proper permits, is shown here in a muddy field in rural Pope County, Minn. Even with multiple citations, Conservation Officer Dan Baumbarger said, the farmer chose to continue to use the irrigation system during last year's drought. Jackson Forderer for MPR News

The lack of permits for many wells is one issue.

But far bigger questions may be:  Is this one way we are witnessing climate change in action in Minnesota? And how long can Minnesota's aquifers sustain pumping billions of gallons of precious groundwater to the surface to boost short term crop yields in a climate of increasing droughts?

Here's a clip from Mark's piece on MPR News this week.

One of the biggest hotspots of the irrigation boom lies in what is called the Bonanza Valley in western Stearns and eastern Pope counties in central Minnesota.

It's not hard to see. Standing off Pope County Road 8 near here recently, Department of Natural Resources conservation officer Daniel Baumbarger pointed out the evidence.

Four big irrigation rigs stood nearby, each basically a quarter-mile water pipe on wheels. As they swing around a central hub, they trace a perfect circle. In satellite photos this signature pattern looks like green poker chips tossed on a table. And their numbers are increasing. In 2013 there were more than 400 irrigation permit applications filed with the state. That's more than double the previous year, and four times what was seen in 2011.

"Over the past few years, it has increased quite dramatically, the amount of water that people are drawing from the soil," said Baumbarger.

The state's 5,000-plus irrigation units have pumped as much as 130 billion gallons of water in a single summer, most of it from wells.

One main reason: On the state's sandy soils, farmers with irrigation can make more money than those who rely on rain. In drought years that can mean 200 bushels of corn per acre, while unirrigated acres may have less than 50. The difference can be over $100,000 in a single season. An irrigator not only can pay for itself quickly, it can fatten a farmer's bottom line for years.

But to get those robust yields, farmers are tapping a public resource. Baumbarger said just as a walleye or whitetail deer belong to the citizens of the state, the state's waters are also public property.

"Water is a very big resource that we want to protect," said Baumbarger.

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'Years of Living Dangerously'

Think climate change is a far off abstract future problem? Think again. I had a chance to preview the  new Showtime series, "Years of Living Dangerously," this week. The first episode airs Sunday evening at 9 p.m.

"Living Dangerously" is a sobering look that connects several dots on how climate changes likely spawned severe drought already costing jobs in Texas, and may have started a "Starvation Jihad" leading to a "Hungry Revolution" in Syria.

The series features Harrison Ford, Don Cheadle, Thomas Friedman, and Leslie Stahl among others.

It's a must see for anyone who cares to know about how climate change is already causing seismic shifts in some regions, and why U.S. intelligence agencies consider climate change a nations security threat. It's also a great look at how faith and climate science can coexist, even arise from the same space.

Here's a preview of the first episode.

'Dark snow': Soot from western forest fires causing rapid melting in the Arctic?

It turns out the planet is far more interconnected than we might think. What do massive western forest fires have to do with the rate of melting in the Arctic?

Emerging climate science suggest a triple whammy feedback loop, that could turn into a vicious cycle.

  1. Climate changes and drought extend fire season and create more western forest fires.

  2. Soot from western fires blows all the way to the Arctic, landing on previously white snow and turning it dark. Increased absorption of sunlight (lower albedo) melts snow and ice much faster.

  3. A warmer arctic stalls jet streams, and leads to even more drought and fires in the west.

NBC's Ann Curry has an eye-opening look at how soot from western fires is accelerating the pace of melt in the Arctic, and how it may be assisting climate changes thousands of miles away.

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Climate change reporting: Study finds Fox News accuracy rate just 28 percent

Do you watch the cable networks for information about climate change? Buyer beware.

A new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists found Fox News was accurate just 28 percent of the time -- and misleading 72 percent of the time -- when reporting on climate change in 2013. CNN did a better job with 70 percent accuracy, and MSNBC hit the mark 92 percent of all reports last year.

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Union of Concerned Scientists

Here's more from the study:  Science or Spin? Assessing the Accuracy of Cable News Coverage of Climate Science (2014)

CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC are the most widely watched cable news networks in the U.S. Their coverage of climate change is an influential source of information for the public and policy makers alike.

To gauge how accurately these networks inform their audiences about climate change, UCS analyzed the networks' climate science coverage in 2013 and found that each network treated climate science very differently.

Fox News was the least accurate; 72 percent of its 2013 climate science-related segments contained misleading statements. CNN was in the middle, with about a third of segments featuring misleading statements. MSNBC was the most accurate, with only eight percent of segments containing misleading statements.

The public deserves climate coverage that gets the science right. Media outlets can do more to foster a fact-based conversation about climate change and policies designed to address it, rather than contributing to a broken and inaccurate debate about the established facts of climate science.

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