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Know the West

Climate model may help farmers know what to grow

  What farmer hasn’t wished for a weather-predicting crystal ball? Now, growers in the Yakima Valley have the next best thing: a high-tech climate model that may benefit the entire West.

The climate model is adapted from a West-wide model developed by the Department of Energy, which predicts that, over the next 50 years, Western snowpack will decline by up to 70 percent (see story, page 8). Michael J. Scott, a natural resources economist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., refined the original model to look at the impacts of climate change on farming in the Yakima Valley. He estimates that warmer, drier weather could cause crop yields to drop by nearly a quarter over the next several decades.

Scott hopes that decision-makers throughout the West will pay attention to regional and local climate models, especially since scientists predict that global warming will increase the frequency of severe drought years. In that case, more than just agriculture will be at risk.

Scott says his model will help farmers adapt to dry times by planting drought-tolerant crops in advance, or changing harvest dates. But he still has some hurdles to jump: Roza Irrigation District Director Tom Monroe says he only knows of three farmers who are aware of the model. "I’m not sure how many (of these) folks are willing to accept or agree to global warming itself," he says.