Iowa 2050 Forecast

This is Dr. Emily Schoerning with AR, and I’d like to say hello to all of our friends in Iowa!  I love Iowa.  It’s the land of my home the land of my heart.  I’ve got people I care about all over the country, but it’s gotta be said a solid majority of them are right here in Iowa.  So I’m very emotionally involved in this state’s forecast, but I’m gonna do my best to stay objective so I can give you some good information in this video.  Let’s talk about how we expect Iowa to change as we move towards 2050.

First, let me tell you about the winter, because I know when I talk with my friends in Iowa about climate change, plenty of people are perhaps more pleased than they should be about our increasingly mild winters.  Let’s take a look at those projections for the winter, let’s give the people what they want.

HARDI Looking towards midcentury, we’ve got about the biggest change in plant hardiness zones I’ve seen.  Much milder winters for much of the state.  You can see that we’re losing the zone 4 at the top of the state, getting a big incursion of zone 6 at the bottom.  Right in that middle band of the state we’ve got a conservation band, where we will maintain zone 5 conditions under the RCP 4.5 scenario. 

So, it’ll still get cold enough to snow, but I would anticipate at least another couple of weeks of growing season by midcentury, maybe more like minimum three additional weeks of growing season towards the southern third of the state.  And while there will still be snow, the snowcover won’t be as consistent.  I’d like to point out what might be obvious, but it’s worth saying that if you don’t have snow, you don’t have snowcover on your fields.  That’s a situation where you’re going to need to be more concerned about getting a fall cover crop on the fields if you want to prevent soil loss from those winter winds. 

Plenty of people are going to see those milder, slightly shorter winter projections and feel a bit happy about that, but now we’re going to talk about something that I don’t know anybody is going to like.  We’re going to look at the summer projections.  It’s gonna get hot in Iowa.  HEAT Much hotter than it has been.  Let me show you.  See, even up in the driftless, we’re going to lose the traditional cool summer, we’re going to get a summer more like Missouri or Kansas has today. 

So that’s looking at a typical summer, but in the Midwest, the federal government also wants to warn us about projected heat waves, quite serious heat waves.  By midcentury, one year is ten is going to have a heatwave 13F hotter than current highs.  Now, we’ve got typical summer highs in the high eighties now, it’s not uncommon for us to have heat waves in the low hundreds.  Looking back in the historical record, our hottest historical summer was in 1936, where we had a couple of thrilling days at 111.  It looks like we can anticipate a future towards midcentury where we will see that kind of temperature again, heat waves around 110, but on a more regular basis.

That kind of heat sounds astonishingly unpleasant.  Especially considering how humid our summers tend to be, we could be talking about potentially fatal heat.  Heat that would kill healthy people, and could kill healthy livestock.  But, we already have many of the tools we need to deal with extreme midwestern heat.  Tools like air conditioning, of course, healthy community centers, such as libraries and houses of worship, and, the unsung hero of extreme heat emergencies: basements. 

Want a simple way to build your climate resilience in Iowa?  If you’ve got a basement, especially an old-fashioned basement, one that’s well underground so it stays naturally cooler than the rest of the house, well, if you were to lose power, that’s a place where you could be comfortable and safe in a heat emergency.  A lot of us already prepare basement space for tornado season, have a yearly ritual where we get that basement ready for a weather emergency. You might not have thought about using that same space for a heat emergency, but it’s a good idea to keep in the back of your head.

Let’s talk about the impact of that heat on agriculture, and on plant communities.  As the temperatures increase, plants face more of a demand for moisture.  We’re looking at maybe a 25% higher moisture demand from plants in 2050.  So we’re going to need more water. 

Traditionally, we farm with surface water here, we’ve had a much lower use of irrigation in Iowa than in neighboring states.  But over the past ten years there has been increased use of irrigation.  Most of Iowa draws groundwater from the Jordan aquifer.  Right now, unfortunately, we’re not drawing from it sustainably.  And that’s with relatively low use, right?  We have, again, fairly little agricultural use of the groundwater today.  Most of that unsustainable draw is from residential and commercial use, many of our cities draw their water from the aquifer. 

But, I am willing to bet that most Iowans have not thought about where their water comes from.  We live in a place where water is usually so abundant, we don’t think about turning on the tap, we don’t think about watering the lawn or the garden. 

As we build our state’s resilience, we’re going to need to start seeing water differently, working to conserve water more intensely.  Under the projected changes, the biggest threat to our state is desertification. 

Many of you might not know this, but Iowa actually has some pretty legit desert habitat already.  Over in the Loess hills, to the west, you have your easternmost naturally occurring populations of prickly pear.  The desert, it could bloom out of there.  As we approach midcentury, the desert is going to try to grow.  It’s a threat to the entire state, but the threat is most pronounced to the western half of the state, particularly in places that already have slightly more fragile, more sandy soils.    

We need to work hard to protect and nurture our soil, to get cover crops on that soil, and think about prairie restoration, grasslands restoration.  ISU is working really hard to get the message out there about the importance of soil care for our state’s future.  In some parts of Iowa, like the southwest corner, we have already experienced catastrophic topsoil loss, loss of that beautiful black soil that is among the most beloved parts of our Iowa heritage.  In the southwest corner of the state we’ve seen the worst erosion, but it’s a threat everywhere.  These heavier rains we’ve been getting, they’re going to get worse as we approach midcentury, and they really contribute to soil loss. 

There are ways to get tough, build our resilience to soil erosion.  One of the techniques that’s really gaining traction right now is the prairie strip technique.  These strips of prairie, they catch the soil, that would run into the watershed, and you probably know, the prairie will also lay down new soil over time.  This technique, it also gives you these nice belts of pollinator-friendly, bird-friendly habitat going through your field.  Why would you want that?  Let’s talk about some big picture stuff.  Over the next twenty years, there are substantial projected changes in our agricultural markets.    

As the weather patterns and heat change in Iowa, we’re going to be able to profit from different crops than we have before.  For so long, corn and soy have been what we grow.  But as those summers get so hot, you’re going to get decreasing yields.  I would be interested in changing opportunities, and I do see that many of my neighbors in central Iowa are already experimenting.

Why experiment?  Keep your eye on the situation in California and Arizona.  Right now, we get affordable table crops- salad vegetables- year round out of the Southwest.  But the water situation out of there is becoming just impossible.  Farmers are already getting their water allotments cut, some farmers aren’t getting any water this year.  That’s how bad it is, and there’s no reason to think their water situation is going to improve.  This drought could last decades.  The southwest gets these megadroughts, century-long droughts, in regular cycles, we know that these droughts last a long time, and this is already the worst one in 1200 years. 

Lots of big problems will come out of this Southwestern drought.  But, people are going to want table crops.  And that could be a major new market for our state.

This was the first year I saw a lot of advertising for grant programs to support growing table crops in Iowa, and I do think we’ll be seeing a lot more of that as we move towards midcentury.  Everyone who gardens in the state knows as well as I do what wonderful table crops we can grow here.  This is a place where you have to be careful or your neighbor will leave zucchini at your door while you aren’t looking.  And not, like, the little nice ones, they’ll leave that big zucchini and then it’s your problem, figuring out what to do so it doesn’t go to waste.  I tell you, that’s a real Iowa problem right there.

When we think about soil conservation, the costs involved in soil conservation, it’s worth thinking about the value that soil will have in the future.  It’s not just the southwest that’s likely to lose substantial agricultural production, the southeast is also likely to see some real yield decreases.  Taking care of our soil means taking care of our future- in a future where the economics of agriculture will be changing substantially.  If you’re working with soil that’s pretty degraded, this might be a good time to convert towards pastureland if you can swing it, build the soil back up.

These are big shifts, these are big changes we’re expecting, but, you know, I can’t be too afraid.  Iowans, we’re not only positive in the face of challenges, we’re really tough.  And we get the work done.  We are already ahead of the ball on the energy transition, did you know we’re up to 40% wind energy?  I gotta tell you, I hate the way those windmills blink in the night, they’re very annoying, but even so, I am so proud of our state’s work with the energy transition.  There are communities that are even farther along the path towards renewables, the Amana Colonies, for example, they get most of their power from local biofuels.  And solar installation is way up, I feel like I see ten new solar arrays on homes in my area every year.

We’re building a clean energy infrastructure, and we’re building a resilient infrastructure.  We got whacked really hard by that derecho in 2020, and we know there are more of them coming as the storms become more and more extreme.  Diversifying and localizing our energy infrastructure is a big part of building up our resilience, as is our cultural willingness to help our neighbors when things get bad.  In my area after the 2020 derecho, we had no power for just over a week, which frankly seemed like very fast restoration considering the miles and miles of power lines down.  It gave all of us a real chance to see the current level of resilience and preparedness in the area- plenty of teamwork and community support out here. 

With those extreme storms, we do expect more intense rainfall in the future, and that means more flooding.  I’d like to give a nod to Dubuque, Iowa, they’re a national leader in riverfront design.  In response to the 2008 floods, they created new systems to protect their city infrastructure without the kind of floodwalls that just pass the buck downstream, pushing a bigger wall of water onto neighbors who can’t afford big renovations.  That’s the kind of thinking we need in this country- thinking that includes the wellbeing of our neighbors.

This sort of green water infrastructure, a lot of it involves making more space for water.   Focusing on transitional greenspace, seasonal greenspace, and wetlands restoration.  In other parts of the state where we will be facing frequent flooding, we can look to Dubuque to see these practices in action, get some inspiration.  These green methods are also great methods to build up our bird populations and our pollinator populations.  We still have a lot of good native bees here, a fabulous diversity of potential pollinators, and if we’re looking at more table crops, nice high value crops, we’re going to get better yields with broadly distributed green spaces.  More habitat for pollinators is going to mean better yields for table crops, is going to mean more money for your labor, is going to mean more of our fellow Americans getting the healthy food they need.

When I look towards the future of Iowa, try to sum it up, the best way I can describe it is that everything’s going to get more intense.  The weather will become even more extreme.  Bigger rains, longer droughts.  Hotter heat waves, and you just know we’re going to get a few of those crazy polar vortexes.   Throw in some ice storms every so often, hey it sounds, you know, all not so unfamiliar. 

The extreme conditions of Iowa have already shaped us as a culture.  Our people, those of us who make Iowa our home, we all chose to be here, live in this place with its wild weather and big extremes, because we like it here.  And as Iowa intensifies, I think that we will intensify, too.  That we’ll become more resilient, in our homes and in our communities.  That we’ll be able to dig into our values, our love of our home, our love of our warm and neighborly way of life, our desire to feed the world.  We’ve got strong communities, and I know that we can work together to get stronger.

Does Iowa have the nicest climate outlook that I’ve seen?  Hah hah, no way!  But I think Iowa has about the nicest resilience outlook.  Iowa is tough in all the right ways to handle the changes that are coming.  I’m so happy that I’ll be here with us all, working to build a strong future for Iowa.  And if you’re listening to this and you’re not an Iowan, but this is sounding good?  You’re not afraid of the challenges, you’re not afraid of the changes, you want to work with a community and get ready?  Come on in, we’ve got lots of opportunities here.  It’s not going to be easy here- it never has been what you would call easy- but the people make it nice. 

  This is Dr. Schoerning with AR, signing out.  Please like and subscribe, help get the message out there.  There is hope.  We can prepare for what’s coming- in this state, more than many others.  Let’s get ready.