White House Announces Network of Climate Hubs. So What Are They?

Regional hubs aim to match latest climate science with farmers and ranchers.

Saying it wants to help farmers and ranchers better cope with the effects of climate change, the Obama Administration on Wednesday announced a new network of regional "climate hubs."

The idea is to dispatch a cadre of climate change specialists across the nation to gather the latest science on how climate shifts may affect crops and animals, and to disseminate the information to farmers, ranchers, local officials, and others.

The hubs will operate out of U.S. Department of Agriculture offices, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in making the announcement.

Data from those hubs could help farmers and ranchers anticipate a variety of potentially damaging effects of the warming trend, said Bill Hohenstein, director of the USDA's Climate Change Program Office.

"Higher nighttime temperatures, for example, can affect plant development at critical stages of the growth cycle," Hohenstein said in an interview Wednesday. "And in the west, smaller winter snowpacks can affect the availability of water for irrigation during the growing season."

The climate shift can also mean increased risk to farms from fires, and boost the spread of pests and diseases that threaten farm output, he said.

The new climate hubs could offer solutions, such as helping wheat farmers select seeds whose genetic makeup makes them more resilient against predicted drought conditions.

"On the pest management side, we know that insects respond differently to warmer, drier weather," said Ann Bartuska, deputy undersecretary for the USDA's Research, Education, and Economics section. "If we can predict the change in their range, we can help farmers to find measures to deal with them."

Getting Info to Farmers

The USDA described some of the impacts it expects from climate shifts in a February 2013 report, saying the agency's scientists expect the trend to have "overall detrimental effects on most crops and livestock" by the mid-21st century. (Related: "Leaked Report Spotlights Big Climate Change Assessment.")

The Department of Agriculture has been generating such information for years, spending $120 million a year on climate change-related research.

"The question is how we can get that information into the hands of those who need it," said Bartuska.

The department's new climate change specialists will pass the data and advice along through an existing network of local county extension agents, rural development specialists, and other advisers, Hohenstein said. The specialists will also help train such personnel, along with local officials, to focus more on climate-related issues.

No New Spending

The hub program was announced days before President Barack Obama is expected to sign a $1 trillion farm bill, which has attracted criticism for dialing back funds for food stamps and for financially supporting agribusiness in ways that some say is outdated.

The climate hub program, for its part, aims to avoid spending new dollars, repurposing existing office space and staff. Hohenstein declined to estimate the program's actual cost.

The climate hubs will be located at USDA offices in Ames, Iowa; Durham, New Hampshire; Raleigh, North Carolina; Fort Collins, Colorado; El Reno, Oklahoma; Corvallis, Oregon; and Las Cruces, New Mexico.

The program will also create three subsidiary hubs to deal with narrower issues that affect certain regions. One of those "sub hubs," located in Davis, California, will focus on issues related to specialty crops such as blueberries and wine grapes, since less is known about climate's effects on them.

Don Wuebbes, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and one of the nation's leading climate change researchers, said that helping farmers figure out how to deal with climate change is crucial, because "no matter what we do, we're not going to stop the changing climate.

"I know that USDA scientists get it," Wuebbles said. "It's a way of saying, yes, it's real, and it's already happening, and we need to figure out how to deal with it."

Andrew Walmsley, an official with the American Farm Bureau, an agricultural lobby that has fought the Obama Administration's efforts to curb carbon emissions, said he viewed the program as "probably the least troublesome" of the White House's moves on climate.