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NASA and High-Performance Computing Reveal Climate Impacts on Global Crops in the Next Ten Years

Source:  NASA Goddard, “Climate Change Could Affect Global Agriculture Within 10 Years

In the current issue of the journal Nature Food, NASA scientists published a study exploring the climate impacts on global agriculture scenarios. According to the high greenhouse gas emissions scenario from the report, by 2030 climate change may have a quantifiable impact on the production of maize (corn) and wheat. The NASA scientists highlight in the study that these projections and subsequent scenarios are based on a new generation of climate and crop models “with maize crop yields…projected to decline 24%, while wheat could potentially see growth of about 17% through 2070.  Soybean and rice projections showed a decline in some regions but at the global scale the different models still disagree on the overall impacts [on these crops] from climate change.”

According to the report, “Climate impacts on global agriculture emerge earlier in a new generation of climate and crop models”, the changes in crop yields will be caused by:

  • Projected increases in temperature.
  • Shifts in rainfall patterns; and
  • Elevated surface carbon dioxide concentrations from human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

Such a dramatic decline in corn yields will have a serious impact on global food security, according to Jonas Jägermeyr, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) and The Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York City who is the lead author of the study. In a statement from NASA, Jägermeyr explained:

“We did not expect to see such a fundamental shift, as compared to crop yield projections from the previous generation of climate and crop models conducted in 2014.  A 20% decrease from current production levels could have severe implications worldwide. Even under optimistic climate change scenarios, where societies enact ambitious efforts to limit global temperature rise, global agriculture is facing a new climate reality. And with the interconnectedness of the global food system, impacts in even one region’s breadbasket will be felt worldwide.”

This study is released as the nations of the world wrap up their time together at COP26: the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties.  In an impressive show of global collaboration, Jägermeyr co-authored the report with scientists from institutions around the world, including the:

  • Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research (PIK)
  • International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria at Comenius University (Slovak Republic)
  • Center for Agricultural Water Research in the College of Water Resources and Civil Engineering at China Agricultural University in Beijing, China
  • Multidisciplinary Water Management group at the University of Twente (Netherlands)
  • Center for Climate Change Adaptation at the National Institute for Environmental Studies (Japan); and
  • Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF) in Germany (amongst other international and U.S. organizations).

Highly Accurate Crop Models Allow For New “Time Of Climate Impact Emergence” (TCIE) Metric

This study is an output from a project created in 2010: the Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project (AgMIP) “provides a community for systematic improvement and application of multi-disciplinary, multi-model, multi-scale frameworks for agricultural development and food security.”

AgMIP’s primary tools are the Gridded Crop Modeling Initiative (Ag-GRID) and the Global Gridded Crop Model Intercomparison (GGCMI). According to the AgMIP website: “In 2014, AgMIP’s Global Gridded Crop Model Intercomparison (GGCMI) provided the first set of harmonized crop model projections which identified substantial climate impacts on all major crops, but also demonstrated that crop models might indeed introduce larger uncertainty than climate models. Climate impacts on global agriculture emerge earlier in a new generation of climate and crop models.”

It is the precision with which this new generation of crop modeling depicts climate change impacts which is remarkable – and will influence other disciplines working on climate crises and emergencies, warning systems, mitigation, and adaptation strategies.

It is important not to get too in the weeds (no pun intended) when assessing how these innovations apply to business strategy or operations.  Worth pointing out, however, is the introduction in this study of a new, more accurate metric for predicting climate change-driven events based on crop models:

“Climate change impacts are usually quantified in terms of differences over time, but especially in view of adaptation measures, it is the amplitude of the change compared to the local background variability and uncertainty of the recent past that is often more relevant. Time of climate impact emergence (TCIE)—the point in time by which the yield levels of exceptional years (negative or positive) have become the new norm—is a critical measure for risk assessment. Here we introduce the TCIE concept with respect to future agricultural risks.”

“Time of emergence metrics have been applied to climate variables including temperature, precipitation, and others and demonstrate that major food-producing regions are increasingly facing changing climate profiles in the near term. The ‘emergence’ of climate impacts consistently occurs earlier in the new projections—before 2040 for several main producing regions. While future yield estimates remain uncertain, these results suggest that major breadbasket regions will face distinct anthropogenic climatic risks sooner than previously anticipated.”

For the business leader, this means that the modeling techniques, datasets, global open-source collaboration, and high-performance computing and visualization used to create the GGCMI crop models are more sensitive and accurate than general-purpose climate models. They represent best-in-class publicly available datasets tracking climate change impacts. And there is partnership activity in this space also worth noting, as Amazon, NCAR, SilverLining Team for Unprecedented Cloud Climate Simulations, and a $1.2 million award helps Argonne National Laboratory steer manufacturers toward supercomputing.

NASA, Climate Change, High-Performance Computing, and Visualization

Innovations in high-performance computing (HPC), computer graphics imagery (CGI), and visualization are always worth further investigation when the research context presents itself. And it is encouraging to see NASA working on the challenges of climate change with an extraordinary array of HPC and computer graphics tools and innovative visualization techniques.

Since the early 1990s, high-performance computing (HPC), CGI, and visualization innovations have given us everything from the Star Wars films and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Gaming Industry, the Human Genome Project, CRISPR, Electronic Design Automation (EDA) advances for semiconductor design (and the steady growth of Moore’s Law), and many impactful drug discoveries (including for HIV/AIDS and the current COVI-19 vaccines and treatments).

Some of the HPC and visualization tools utilized by the military and intelligence community have guarded against another attack at the scale of 9/11 occurring on U.S. soil. Finally, the pioneering work in HPC and computer graphics and visualization at James Clark’s Silicon Graphics and Steve Jobs’ NeXT Computer in the 1990s is still embedded in the OS architectures and the graphic look and feel of most mobile devices used today. And that is just a shortlist. HPC, CGI, and visualization have been major technological drivers for the last 30-40 years – and for some reason, it is an area of computing that is rarely highlighted for praise.

So, it is worth looking at the tools the NASA scientists used to generate this most recent global agriculture and crop yield study. For a global challenge that feels so daunting and disheartening at times, there is optimism in the fact that the organization that invented the notion of a “moonshot” has the tools they need to grapple with climate change – and that they seem to be getting their arms around the problem.

Here’s how the lead author of the report Jonas Jägermeyr and his team of NASA scientists at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies worked with AgMIP:

  • The modeling groups are coordinated by a team from the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) Computation Institute, the NASA GISS Climate Impacts Group, and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research. The coordination team establishes a consistent methodology, including simulation protocols and comparison metrics, for intercomparison and improvement of gridded model applications.
  • The coordination team also provides access to a database of assimilated gridded environmental, socio-economic, and climate datasets, as well as all outputs and analyses to enable individual and collaborative studies within the GGCMI network.

According to the report, the following are the HPC, CGI, and visualization tools and the workflow that generated this recent NASA study and will continue to be utilized by a community of scientists around the world to address climate change:

  • The advanced computing infrastructure:  GGCMI is housed at the ANL, with “an existing archive and IT infrastructure developed at ANL to facilitate data sharing and discovery…this resource, already serving 10 TBs of climate and impact model outputs for the AgMIP…will be updated and managed as an ongoing resource for the impacts community for years to come.”
  • Computing and data services:  Housed at the University of Chicago Research Computing Center (RCC) and the German Climate Computing Center (DKRZ), the University of Chicago Research Computing Center provided supercomputer allocations to run the pDSSAT model.
  • Crop Models/Datasets:  Soil input is harmonized across crop models for the first time in GGCMI, derived from the Harmonized World Soil Database (HWSD). The pDSSAT model uses the Global Soil Data set for Earth system modeling (GSDE) and DSSAT-Pythia uses the Global High-Resolution Soil Profile Database for Crop Modelling Applications Due to difficulties in retrieving all soil parameters from HWSD.  Inputs are provided for 18 different crops globally, but most crop models can only simulate the major crops, which are the focus of the study.
  • Socioeconomic and farm management input data:  All input data are publicly available via The Inter-Sectoral Impact Model Intercomparison Project.
  • Participating GGCMI crop models: Twelve process-based global crop models participate in this study: ACEA, CROVER, CYGMA1p74, DSSAT-Pythia, EPIC-IIASA, ISAM, LandscapeDNDC, LPJmL, pDSSAT, PEPIC, PROMET and SIMPLACE-LINTUL5 (see Supplementary Table 3 of the study for further details and references).
  • Total number of simulations:  The full ensemble, therefore, consists of roughly 240 future crop model simulations per crop plus one historical reference run for each crop and climate model and one historical reanalysis run per crop model. Due to computational constraints, ACEA has only run GCMs UKESM1-0-LL and MRI-ESM2-0 so far, and DSSAT-Pythia has not yet run UKESM1-0-LL. ACEA and DSSAT-Pythia have not yet finished simulations for the constant [CO2] setting.
  • Over the course of the project: 20.000 global simulation time series, 400 million spatially explicit time series, and 12 billion data points.

“Computational constraints”? “Simulations have not yet finished”? “12 billion data points”?

For anyone with an HPC and/or a CGI/Visualization background (who has had to wait for something to finish rendering, simulating, or computing) such talk is staggering, awe-inspiring – and really encouraging – as this same HPC, CGI, and visualizations and the research studies and outputs they support are the same hard scientific data which populates the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report  – Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis –  the report which structured the COP26 proceedings.

NASA is pushing advanced compute literally to the bleeding edge in an effort to grapple with climate change on behalf of everyone on the planet – and that seems like a positive development worth watching.

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Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira is research director at OODA. He is a foresight strategist, creative technologist, and an information communication technology (ICT) and digital media researcher with 20+ years of experience directing public/private partnerships and strategic innovation initiatives.