Climate change will fertilize millions of hectares in the coldest areas of the planet.
As global warming caused by climate change progresses, huge amounts of land now barren will become fertile for agriculture.
A study has projected the viability of several crops in the most likely climatic scenarios. By the end of the century, in large portions of the Siberian taiga, the Canadian boreal forests and slopes of the great mountain ranges could be sown wheat, soybeans, potatoes or corn.
This scenario does not mean that the world should or will go use Siberian lands for planting crops, give the vast amount of unused land that exists everywhere else.
One of the most obvious effects of climate change is the translation of all types of plant and animal species to increasingly north latitudes and increasing altitudes.
With agriculture is also happening. Now, a group of researchers has estimated the future viability of 12 of the main crops in geographical areas where the cold today prevents them from fruiting.
Among them are from rice and palm to wheat and peanuts, passing through cassava, sugar cane or cotton.
The work, published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE starts from the thermal range that these products support and projects it in two of the most probable climatic scenarios, one in which emissions are reduced according to the Paris agreements and another extreme, in which nothing is done to mitigate them. Whatever the future, by the end of the century most of these crops can be planted further north and higher than today.
“Areas not suitable for agriculture today will probably be available in the next 50 to 100 years,” says a professor of geomatics at the University of Guelph, Krishna Bahadur.
In the most likely scenario, according to the combination of several climate models, the warming would make about 1.5 billion hectares more viable for at least one crop. The ones that can expand the most will be wheat, potatoes and corn.
Half of the land gained is within the borders of Russia and Canada, with more than 400 million hectares each country. A large part of the Rocky Mountains, a mountain range that crosses North America from top to bottom, the southern portion of the Andes and large areas of Central Asia, would also be cultivable.
Due to changes in humidity patterns, broad strips adjacent to the African and Australian deserts would also be primed for agriculture, but here there is greater uncertainty.
Although the total area is smaller, in relative terms it stands out that the northern Nordic countries and the Alps could support at least two of the main crops.
That so many new lands – new agricultural frontiers – become fertile does not mean that they end up being cultivated.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), there are about 4,400 million hectares suitable for agriculture on the Earth right now, although only 1,500 million effectively cultivated.
Even so, the authors of the study dedicate the second part of their work to determine the risks, the consequences, that the cultivation of so many hectares would have, which again, is unlikely to happen.
“The development of agriculture in large areas of the northern borders would release alarming amounts of soil carbon,” says environmentalist Lee Hannah, head of climate change at the Conservation International organization and co-author of the study.
Based on previous research, authors of this work estimate that between 25% and 40% of all carbon trapped in the earth that has never been broken could be released into the atmosphere in the first five years after it is worked.
According to their calculations, up to 177,000 million tons of carbon could escape in that short space of time. That equals the total CO2 that the US would emit in 119 years at the rate it does today.
The release of so much gas could have an amplifying effect: in the north of the new agricultural frontiers, there is a large strip of permanently frozen land, the permafrost.
Its thaw is one of the greatest fears of scientists, because of the large amount of methane it contains and this is a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than CO2.
“The conversion of the land could generate additional regional warming that would accelerate the melting of frozen peat soils, further accelerating climate change,” Hannah warns.
There are two other collateral damage from the expansion of agriculture to the north. On the one hand, around 1.2 billion people depend on the water that flows through these areas.
The introduction of crops, with their fertilizers and pesticides, assuming. that those are used, would entail risks for water quality. More important is even the impact on biodiversity. At least 1,361 of the so-called key biodiversity areas would be affected if all new lands were cultivated.
Many of these areas were protected because there was no agricultural interest in them. This is what happened decades ago with the Amazon region and how regional processes, such as the advancement of livestock and agriculture, had and have a global impact.