A 140-mile shift is complete, but the 100th Meridian — an invisible boundary between the humid eastern U.S. and dry Great Plains — remains on the move, prompting new challenges for Iowa farmers.
The boundary, according to researcher Richard Seager of Columbia University, was at 100 degrees west longitude when American geologist John Wesley Powell identified it in 1878, which provided its “100th Meridian” moniker. It cut through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas, and was considered the beginning of the sparsely populated plains. Because of the differing climate east and west of the line, farmers chose different crops and employed different practices. In the west, many grew wheat. As we Iowans know firsthand, thirstier corn flourished in the east.
But over the past century, the boundary has shifted more than 100 miles east, closing in on Iowa’s western border and threatening to alter how Iowa farmers will grow crops and, perhaps, what crops they’ll choose.
In an 1890 editorial in Century Magazine, Powell attempted to push the country toward sustained development linked to geographic environment by writing, “Passing from east to west across this belt a wonderful transformation is observed. On the east a luxuriant growth of grass is seen, and the gaudy flowers of the order Compositae make the prairie landscape beautiful.” In the West, Powell colorfully noted “hot, dry winds” come to “devastate” the land by “searing the vegetation and parching the soil.”
Similar observations were made in 1931 by Walter Prescott Webb, who explored the Great Plains. He wrote, “At this fault the ways of life and of living changed. Practically every institution that was carried across it was either broken and remade or else greatly altered. The ways of travel, the weapons, the method of tilling the soil, the plows and other agricultural implements, and even the laws themselves were modified.”
Seager, who led the recent study, said he and his team “wanted to ask whether there really is such a divide, and whether its influenced human settlement.” Findings were published in the American Meteorological Society journal Earth Interactions.
The researchers predict arid climates will continue eastward, pushing farms in its wake to consolidate in order to remain viable. Those that remain will need to supplement with irrigation, or perhaps switch to crops that need less water. In urban settings, they note, water supplies may be threatened.
It’s the latest salvo in the agriculture industry’s battles against time — a war in which many participants are loathe to name their enemy: Climate change.
J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr., a sociologist at Iowa State University, told Scientific American that farmers see change is occurring, but only a few believe it can be attributed to humans. Through his research he determined agreement on climate change largely boiled down to trust. That is, farmers who received and trusted information from farm groups, agribusinesses and farm presses were less likely to believe climate change is occurring and that it is caused by human activity.
A Montana report on the ongoing woes of barley farmers notes: “The farmers know something is happening to the weather, but the words ‘climate change’ have become politically charged in a place where, like much of rural America, conservative politics dominate. Farmers will talk about the flash drought or the unpredictable rains, but for most, ‘climate change’ is easier to joke about than acknowledge.”
One barley farmer who privately said climate change was taking a toll on his livelihood, changed the semantics during a public discussion to “erratic weather” and “drier, hotter summers.”
While politics may have changed, science hasn’t.
The EPA put out a comprehensive report in 1989, as the Reagan administration was transitioning to the Bush administration, detailing the impact of climate change over the next 30 to 50 years. One year away from that 30-year benchmark and we are already experiencing nearly all of what the Republican-led agency predicted.
And yet, despite such an early and dire warning, only 18 states have climate mitigation plans in place for agriculture. Iowa isn’t among them, although Minnesota and Wisconsin have plans in place.
Meanwhile, the 100th Meridian is taking in the view at 98, and looking further east to the Hawkeye State’s fields of corn and soy.
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