20 Dec 2021
20 Dec 2021
Status: this preprint is currently under review for the journal ESD.

Resilience of UK crop yields to changing climate extremes

Louise J. Slater1, Chris Huntingford2, Richard F. Pywell2, John W. Redhead2, and Elizabeth J. Kendon3,4 Louise J. Slater et al.
  • 1School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, Oxford, OX1 3QY, UK
  • 2UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Wallingford, Oxon, OX10 8BB, UK
  • 3Met Office, FitzRoy Road, Exeter, Devon, EX1 3PB, UK
  • 4Bristol University, Faculty of Science, BS8 1UH, UK

Abstract. Recent extreme weather events have had severe impacts on UK crop yields, and so there is concern that a greater frequency of extremes could affect crop production in a changing climate. Here we investigate potential future impacts of climate projections on wheat, the most widely grown cereal crop globally, in a temperate country with currently favourable wheat-growing conditions. Past and projected climate conditions are considered for key wheat growth stages (Foundation, Construction and Production). Historically, following the plateau of UK wheat yields since the 1990s, we find there has been a recent significant increase in wheat yield volatility, which is partially explained by seasonal metrics of temperature and precipitation, including mean, extremes, and intra-seasonal variability. Strong associations between climate and yield anomalies occur during years with cumulative climate impacts across growth stages, when climate extremes ‘escape’ the ability of farmers to adapt through agronomic means. We then analyse the latest 2.2 km UK Climate Projections for the UK’s three main wheat-growing regions. Climate projections indicate that on average across the three regions, the Foundation growth stage (broadly 1st October to 9th April) is likely to become warmer and wetter, while the Construction (10th April to 10th June) and Production (11th June to 26th July) stages are likely to become warmer and slightly drier. An analogue approach, comparing historical climate conditions with future climate projections, reveals a mixed picture of future climate conditions for UK crop yields. Projected warmer winter night temperatures are likely to prove beneficial in the Foundation stage, but concurrent increases in heavy rain may be detrimental. Similarly, warmer and drier mean conditions may enhance yields during the Production stage, but increases in high temperatures and heat variability may increase plant stress, while decreases in rainfall may also threaten adequate water supply. Since future climatic conditions are likely to move outside the historically observed range, there may be challenges for agriculture to adapt management practices to realise any potential benefits.

Louise J. Slater et al.

Status: final response (author comments only)

Comment types: AC – author | RC – referee | CC – community | EC – editor | CEC – chief editor | : Report abuse
  • RC1: 'Comment on esd-2021-92', Anonymous Referee #1, 05 Jan 2022
    • AC1: 'Reply on RC1', Louise Slater, 11 Jan 2022
  • RC2: 'Comment on esd-2021-92', Corey Lesk, 13 Jan 2022
    • AC2: 'Reply on RC2', Louise Slater, 01 Apr 2022
  • RC3: 'Comment on esd-2021-92', Anonymous Referee #3, 20 Jan 2022
    • AC3: 'Reply on RC3', Louise Slater, 01 Apr 2022

Louise J. Slater et al.

Louise J. Slater et al.


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Short summary
This work considers how wheat yields are affected by weather conditions during the three main wheat growth periods in the UK. The impact of weather on wheat yields is strongest in years with multiple weather extremes that ‘escape’ the ability of farmers to adapt through agronomic means. Future climate projections reveal mixed impacts of climate on wheat yields, with benefits arising from the warmer conditions, but also detrimental impacts of heavy winter rainfall and summer drought.