In the Face of a Changing Climate: Extended Agricultural Outlooks Apply Satellite Data for Crop Condition Monitoring
Global food security remains one of the greatest challenges of our time, and feeding our communities in the face of a changing climate poses a unique obstacle. With the exponential advancement of satellite technology and the expansive amount of available data that has come with it in recent decades, there is still room for growth in applying this data in meaningful ways.
When it comes to agricultural production and food security, it is critical to accurately monitor crop conditions over time throughout the growing seasons, especially as we see an undeniable increase in extreme weather events due to climate change. One of the goals of NASA Harvest, NASA’s Food Security and Agriculture Program and NASA’s contribution to the Group on Earth Observations Global Agricultural Monitorinng (GEOGLAM), is to better enable the uptake and availability of Earth data applications in order to improve global agricultural monitoring. The earlier that farmers, policymakers, humanitarian organizations, and other decision-makers are aware of a potential crop shortfall or failure, the more time and resources can be made available to mitigate a pending food shortage. An added benefit of remotely sensed satellite data is that it can be extremely useful for monitoring agricultural production in regions that are particularly difficult to access (such as conflict zones, remote locations, areas damaged by extreme weather, or regions affected by COVID-19 travel restrictions). Remotely sensed satellite data enables agricultural stakeholders to track global crop production frequently and in a cost-effective manner, which means we can see warning signs of potential crop failure early in the season. Furthermore, publicizing these early indicators of potential food shortages is critical to enabling an effective mitigation response.
One way that we can improve early warning is to further analyze the agroclimatic variables that are known to contribute the most to crop failures. Recognizing this need for improved extended crop condition forecasting, FEWS NET developed a project for implementing partners at NASA Harvest, the University of California, Santa Barbara Climate Hazards Center (UCSB-CHC), NASA Goddard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and EROS (USGS), who have teamed up to pilot the development of experimental crop condition maps at extended scales in the framework of the GEOGLAM Crop Monitor Initiative. New research has indicated potential for forecasting climate oscillations (e.g. El Niño–Southern Oscillation) as much as two years in advance of a forthcoming climate event (i.e. El Niño or La Niña). With this in mind, the interagency team is using these long-lead climate forecasts to generate crop classification maps with climate analogs being applied to generate various scenarios of forecast agroclimatic indicators six to nine months in advance of the start of the season. Expert analysis conducted by FEWS NET regional scientists and the GEOGLAM community converts these indicators into a most-likely scenario of crop conditions.
The overall goal of extended outlook forecasting is to be able to alert agricultural stakeholders to potential synchronous and/or sequential adverse conditions (including drought) 12-18 months in advance of devastating food insecurity conditions. To this end, the extended climate outlooks are being piloted to generate experimental end-of-season crop condition maps well in advance of the start of the growing season and in-season to identify areas that will most likely be impacted by adverse conditions. This work is being done following the existing framework within the GEOGLAM Crop Monitors in order to further test the capacity of these outlooks in providing early awareness of potential synchronous shortfalls to support anticipatory action by the humanitarian community. Pilot analysis is currently underway for the East Africa 2021 October-November-December and 2022 March-April-May seasons, where a high possibility for a third and fourth consecutive season of below-average rains for eastern East Africa has been identified.
The importance of accurate, frequent, and early agricultural monitoring cannot be overstated. Food shortages have wide-reaching effects that impact not only the health and livelihoods of our communities, but also extend to supply chain disruptions and food price spikes that can result in broad economic consequences. Applying Earth observation data and cross-sectoral agricultural expertise to improve crop condition forecasting is essential to mitigating the potentially disastrous and extremely costly results of a food shortage. Early warning leads to early intervention, which has time and time again proven to be the most effective means of ensuring stability in our food systems.