Climate-Driven Farming ‘Frontiers’ Pose Real Environmental Risks

(CN) – High-altitude and polar regions previously unsuitable to support agriculture are now being looked at for future farming opportunities, but research shows bringing agriculture to these areas could significantly impact biodiversity, water resources, and greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

Climate change biologist and conservation ecologist Lee Hannah from Conservation International’s Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science in Arlington, Virginia, and his colleagues analyzed these risks and published their findings Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

A view out the window of the research aircraft Polar 5 during a flight over the Mackenzie Delta near the Arctic Ocean. (Photo by T. Sachs, GFZ)

Earth’s climate is warming, and as a result several regions at high altitudes and latitudes are becoming increasingly suitable for farming. Under normal circumstances, high-elevation flora consists of mainly grasses, shrubs, and other short-stature plants that can sustain themselves under the cold temperatures and elevated UV rays. Areas in the tundra are experiencing a similar phenomenon as temperatures rise, snow begins to melt early causing an early spring and increased vegetation as a result.

This beckons the potential for more crops to help feed the growing human population, but unfortunately very little is known about the risks of this activity on a global scale. Some ecosystems are more fragile than others, and the slightest disruption can throw off the delicate balance. Efforts must be taken to ensure an ecosystem’s carrying capacity is not exceeded, that no invasive species are being introduced, that the local food chain is not disrupted, and the researchers say these new “frontiers” may pose very real challenges and threats to wildlife, water resources, and other environmental factors.

Hannah and his colleagues set out to help clarify these risks with their first-of-its-kind global modeling analysis of climate change-driven shifts in crop suitability and the environmental impacts that follow. This model could weigh the environmental risks and benefits of turning regions affected by climate change into crops before they happen.

Their analysis includes predictions of 17 global climate models and enables assessment of different regions’ future suitability for 12 prominent crops, including corn, sugar and cotton.

They found climate change will increase the amount of land suitable for these key crops worldwide by about 30%, primarily in the upper latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere and in mountains around the world. However, the possibilities would not be ideal as farming these frontiers would bring an onslaught of environmental consequences.

Farming these frontiers could pollute the downstream water resources that serve roughly 1.8 billion people in surrounding areas. It could also drastically decrease biodiversity in tropical mountain regions. In fact, the predicted frontiers overlap about 19 different global diversity hotspots, as well as critical bird habitats.

Furthermore, farming and agriculture is one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for a shocking one-third of human-caused emissions. With the human population continuing to grow, along with the growing need for food security, it is already of the utmost importance to discover more efficient practices for crop management.

There’s an even bigger problem, however. In this scenario, farming of new agricultural frontiers has the alarming potential to release up to 177 gigatons of carbon stored in these frontier soils into the atmosphere – roughly equivalent to more than 100 years’ worth of present-day carbon dioxide emissions from the U.S. Such a release would almost certainly accelerate global warming.

More research is needed to fully understand the effects of rising temperatures and farming frontiers on a global scale. And not all the results of this study are bleak. The findings could help shape future efforts to manage farming in these agricultural frontiers in a responsible way so that communities can benefit from new farmland while the environmental consequences are mitigated.

“In a warming world, there will be new opportunities and challenges in the north. This work highlights how we must approach the idea of developing new farmland very cautiously and be extremely mindful of potential negative environmental impacts,” the authors said in a statement accompanying the study, emphasizing the significance of their work.

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