Photograph by Scott Olson, Getty Images
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Water pools in rain-soaked farm fields on May 29, 2019 near Gardner, Illinois. This year, corn planting is the most delayed it's been in recorded U.S. history.

Photograph by Scott Olson, Getty Images

Midwest flooding is drowning corn and soy crops. Is climate change to blame?

This year's constant deluge of rain has led some to wonder if farmers are finally feeling the predicted impacts of a warming world.

Seen from above, the Midwestern U.S. looks more like a marsh than the fertile fields that grow some of the nation’s most lucrative crops. That’s because this spring has been one of the rainiest on record for the region. As a result, many farmers have been forced to leave their fields empty.

And though it’s difficult to link one single weather event to climate change, climate scientists say the devasting rains falling over the Midwest are exactly in line with what they’ve been predicting.

“Overall, it’s climate change,” says Donald Wuebbles, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “We expect an increase in total precipitation in the Midwest, especially in winter and spring, with more coming as larger events.”

A closing window

Depending on the state, early June is the latest corn can be planted and mid-June is the latest soybeans can be planted. After that, temperatures climb too high and rain falls too little for the crop to be successful.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture monitors crop progress during the planting season, and on May 28 they reported that only 58 percent of the corn that could be planted was in the ground. For soybeans, it was only 29 percent. That's a big deal for U.S. farmers who supply a quarter of the world's grains, a category that includes corn, wheat, and rice.

Farmers took to Twitter to document the disastrous impacts of rain. Using the hashtag #noplant19, they showed flat plains full of water.

Warming air leads to more water

“When you warm up the atmosphere, the atmosphere can hold more moisture,” says David Easterling, the chief of the scientific services devision at the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration.

He explains that much of the rain falling over midwestern states originated in the skies over the Gulf of Mexico, where waters have warmed. As that atmosphere above the gulf warms, it’s capable of holding more moisture, which it will ultimately dump somewhere. Last year, major flooding left behind by hurricanes was attributed to climate change-induced warming.

In the most recently published National Climate Assessment, in 2018, for which Easterling served as the director for the technical support unit, researchers concluded that the U.S. would face more catastrophic flooding that would affect infrastructure and crops.

“As you continue to warm the atmosphere, you can expect to see more of these extreme events in the future,” he says.

Rain does more than just prevent crops from being put in the ground. Once planted, the roots can be damaged by too much moisture, making it difficult for the plant to continue growing. One recently published study found that extreme rainfall can be just as bad for crops as drought or intense heat.

Impact on farmers and consumers

The economic impact facing farmers and consumers is uncertain, says Matthew Pots, an economist who studies corn, soybean, and wheat markets.

“A lot will depend on the growing season,” he says. “This crop could go anywhere. It will be below trend line and will depend on summer weather. It's going to be pollinating at a hot time, which could stress the crop as well.”

Corn used in cattle feed will likely be more expensive, he says, alluding that the poor harvest will trickle into other industries and drive up some prices in the grocery stores.

As if this season's rain wasn't bad enough, farmers are also bearing the brunt of a trade war. In response to tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on Chinese imports last May, China has refused to buy U.S. crops like soy. Many farmers stock both corn and soybean seeds and turn to soy when they're unable to fully plant corn. Without China, the market for that soy has shrunk.

"We are living climate change right now," says Evan DeLucia, a plant biologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He notes that geneticists can modify crops to withstand floods and drought, but creating a plant that can do both will be challenging.

Pot says he hasn't yet seen climate change push farmers to change their practices, but “after a year like this, do more people buy in [to climate change]? That could be possible.”