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Data analytics show flash droughts’ impact on U.S. wheat crops

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Photo by Fabian Mardi on Unsplash
Photo by Fabian Mardi on Unsplash
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The “flash drought” came out of nowhere, hitting the High Plains states of Montana and the Dakotas the hardest, destroying more than half of this year’s wheat crop.

The intense drought is so bad the multi-agency U.S. Drought Monitor recently upgraded the drought to “exceptional,” its highest drought designation, akin to the drought that crippled California for five years.

The term, “flash drought” is relatively new, only coming into use in 2016. Flash drought refers to relatively short periods of warm surface temperature and extremely low and rapid decreasing soil moisture (SM). Based on the physical mechanisms associated with flash droughts, these events are classified into two categories: heat wave and precipitation P deficit flash droughts, according to researchers.

In their research, scientists noted that heat wave flash droughts are most likely to occur over the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest, where the vegetation cover is dense. So the flash drought occurring on the High Plains is called a heat wave flash drought.

The Associated Press says the dry conditions are “laying waste to crops and searing pasture and hay land” in America’s new wheat belt. Many longtime farmers and ranchers are saying it’s the worst of their lifetimes. “The damage and the destruction is just unimaginable,” Montana resident Sarah Swanson said. “It’s unlike anything we’ve seen in decades.”

These “flash droughts” are expected to become more frequent as climate change continues to affect our environment and weather patterns. Climate scientists have already predicted the High Plains will essentially turn to desert over the coming decades and centuries. But we must also remember that declining levels of groundwater from intense irrigation, also have to be taken into account.

What is being done to provide early detection of flash droughts?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ranks droughts and flash droughts second in terms of national weather-related economic impacts behind hurricanes, which cause annual losses of nearly $9.0 billion. To provide earlier detection of flash droughts, the Quick Drought Response Index, or QuickDRI, went operational in June 2017.

QuickDRI is a collaboration between the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) and Center for Advanced Land Management Information Technologies (CALMIT) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the U.S. Geological Survey Earth Resources Observation and Science (USGS EROS) Center, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS), and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC).

The QuickDRI geospatial tool detects short-term changes and rapid intensification of drought conditions through the integration of satellite, climate, and biophysical information on a weekly basis at a 1.0 kilometer (0.62 miles) gridded spatial resolution.

You could liken QuickDRI to an “alarm,” because it is an indicator of events that are happening rapidly, like a few days in time. Jesslyn Brown, a project co-investigator and lead for QuickDRI operations at the U.S. Geological Survey says, “We expect it to be especially helpful for decisions related to irrigation and fire management.”

QuickDRI has a companion prediction platform called Vegetation Drought Response Index, or VegDRI, which gives us a picture of drought’s impact on vegetation, however, VegDRI is a seasonal drought indicator.

“Preliminary assessment of QuickDRI shows that it consistently detects short-term dryness patterns across the continental U.S.,” said Dr. Brian Wardlow, the co-principal investigator of the QuickDRI project and director of the Center for Advanced Land Management Information Technologies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The economic impact of the drought and numerous wildfires burning across the High Plains may exceed $1 billion across the by the time the rains return. Ranchers from as far away as West Virginia have been sending donations of hay to their neighbors in the drought-stricken states. And to add to farmer’s miseries, the Trump administration is proposing heavy cuts to a key federal crop insurance program.

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Precision agriculture sowing the seeds for Canadian economic prosperity

Looking for inspiration on driving technology adoption and innovation? Look no further than Western Canada’s agriculture industry

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Wilson Acton is Chief Commercial Officer at AgTech startup Verge
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For those who don’t work in agriculture, the sector’s embrace of new technology and innovation may seem like a recent development. But as Wilson Acton points out, it’s been going on for generations.

“Farmers, out of necessity, have had to be rapid adopters of technology to survive tight margins as farms got bigger and bigger,” Acton told CollisionsYYC host Tyler Chisholm in a recent interview. [Tune in to 6:11 above] 

Acton, who is Chief Commercial Officer at AgTech startup Verge, and Executive Vice President, Corporate Affairs & General Counsel at data services firm Whipcord, says other industries could learn a lot from Western Canada’s agricultural (aka “AG”) industry because many businesses are already managing vast amounts of data fed from machines connected to the web via sensors.

“You climb into a modern day tractor and you’re going to see the equivalent of about six iPads all running [different] aspects of the tech,” says Acton. “It’s more like running a spaceship than that old-school analog tractor.”

When it comes to innovation driving transformation in Western Canada, Acton believes the agriculture industry is already well ahead.

AgTech is revolutionizing farming

According to tech-sector tracking platform Tracxn, Canada has more than 200 AgTech (or agritech) startups that provide everything from water and nutrient delivery, to equipment sharing platforms, to crop data collection and analytics.

A relatively new player in the space, Verge entered the market about a year ago and builds precision agriculture technology that uses data and artificial intelligence to optimize farm management. 

Precision agriculture is a practice that uses technology such as GPS, drones, sensors and soil sampling in order to grow crops more efficiently. It allows farmers to use remote sensors and real-time data to deploy seeds, fertilizer, water and nutrients only when and where they’re needed. 

Precision agriculture is often called the trend to watch because it yields farmers the most profit per square acre and eliminates waste.

With Verge, the company has two products for the farming industry:

  • First Pass is software that improves the efficiency of in-field operations
  • Launch Pad is a web-based geospatial application that optimizes machinery movement

Both products help growers increase productivity and profit while reducing soil degradation and equipment wear-and-tear. The company is also one of the few already preparing for autonomous farm machinery.

When asked what resources have been especially beneficial for Verge, Acton praised the generosity and collaborative spirit of Alberta’s business community. 

“For me, the biggest thing which I was very pleasantly surprised about was everyone’s openness and willingness [to help],” said Acton, noting that his fellow tech entrepreneurs have offered to make introductions, discuss ideas and provide feedback. “That was actually really powerful, and continues to be so. I think that’s why this is going to stick. That’s how Alberta and Western Canada were built in the first place – everyone willing to help their neighbour. It wasn’t me versus you — it’s, we’re all in this together.” 

Field of AgTech dreams

Acton believes Canada has emerged as a world leader in AgTech adoption thanks to farmers’ open-mindedness and the country’s challenging economic conditions. 

“That incentivizes people to push the boundaries and adopt technology,” he says. “When things are profitable and everybody’s making money, you don’t tend to adopt a bunch of new technology. When things are tight and you’re not sure you’re going to get by — that’s when you start fine-tuning on the edges.” [Tune in to 14:40 above] 

As a bedrock of Western Canada, the Ag industry can contribute to a stronger and more resilient economy and Acton believes it should be part of Canada’s diversification strategy.

The sector has long toiled in the shadow of the “bigger, flashier, sexier beast of oil and gas” and other industries, but as those falter, people are paying greater attention to Ag, he said. [Tune in to 21:58 above] 

When asked what signs would be viewed as positive leading indicators in Ag, Acton brought up job creation and wanting to see more businesses migrate to Alberta, as well as more home-grown startups.

Several Ag businesses are looking to Alberta as their Canadian home, including chemical giant BASF who announced it was relocating its new Canadian agricultural headquarters to Calgary last year. Calgary is already home to other major global chemical and agricultural companies, including Syngenta Canada Inc. and Corteva Agriscience (a division of Dow/Dupont).

Acton believes that companies coming to Alberta and investing in the long-term will be key to economic growth and keep talent in the province.

“What are the indicators around new businesses starting here?” he asks. “What are the indicators around our new grads staying here?” he asked. “To me, those are the big indicators we want to look at because those are not just indications of prosperity in the moment, but the perception of future prosperity. If you’re a new grad who’s going to stay here, you’ve got a perception that you’ve got a pretty long runway.” [Tune in to 42:34 above] 

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Big data analytics provides first world vegetation maps

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Artificial intelligence and big data analytics have been applied to produce the first global map of the world’s regions where vegetation can and cannot be grown.

The Valencia University study assesses the global abundance of the phosphorus and nitrogen content in vegetation. Also assessed is the efficiency in water use. The scientists’ aim is to show where the best places are for agriculture and where environmental conditions are changing in response to climate change. The application of artificial intelligence and big data methodologies also enables an assessment to be made of our planet’s biodiversity.

Together with carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and sulfur, nitrogen and phosphorus are the principal chemical elements incorporated into living systems. They are strong signals of the suitability of different parts of the Earth for agriculture. Both nitrogen and phosphorus are needed by plants in large amounts (although excessive quantities can also cause environmental damage). In soil, nitrogen and phosphorus are typically found in the form of nitrates and phosphates.

The new global maps produced by the researchers gathered information from Google mass satellite observation data and then used a specially developed artificial intelligence program to assess the data and produce the color-coded maps. The satellites gathered temporal and spatial observations, and this produced a series of maps characterizing different biophysical parameters. To develop the maps required numerous observation-measurement pairings to be number crunched.

Speaking with Phys.org, lead researcher Álvaro Moreno explained why the maps were significant: “Until now, it was impossible to produce these maps because the required conditions weren’t available. We didn’t have powerful and accurate machine learning statistical tools, nor did we have access to great bodies of data or cloud computing.”

The new maps and the process behind them are published in the journal Remote Sensing, in a paper titled “Regional Crop Gross Primary Productivity and Yield Estimation Using Fused Landsat-MODIS Data” and an companion article in Remote Sensing of Environment titled “A methodology to derive global maps of leaf traits using remote sensing and climate data.”

The next steps are to use the technology to further assess the impact of climate change and to assess other important societal and ecological questions like the pressure on food production to meet population growth and the development of new technologies, like biofuel production.

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Growing more with less – Using AI and robotics to grow crops

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Startup Iron Ox has created a fully autonomous farm in San Carlos, California. The hydroponic indoor farm relies on two robots to plant, care for and harvest produce, and by doing so, they grow 30 times more produce than traditional farms.

San Carlos, California-based Iron Ox is a startup company founded in 2015 by Brandon Alexander and Jon Binney. The two founders decided to get into robotic farms after working at a number of other robotics companies. But as Alexander notes, in his stint at Google X, it was more about building cool technologies, rather than how robots could be used. As he told Tech Crunch, “We’d seen lots of novelty robotics stuff and wanted to avoid that.”

The two would-be urban farmers also realized that farming is very hard work. The U.S. alone has more than two million farms with 925,000 people to perform tasks like planting, seeding and inspection, contributing to total production expenses of $350 billion in 2017.

Then, there is the knowledge that agricultural productivity will need to increase by 60 percent in order to feed the world population by 2050. These factors inspired the young company to tap into a database of agricultural and horticultural knowledge, along with robotics, to design an indoor farm of the future.

Today, most of the leafy greens grown in the U.S. are produced in California and Colorado, particularly in the winter months when it’s colder in the rest of the country. So fresh leafy greens are actually two or three days old by the time they reach the supermarket. “That’s why we switched to indoors,” Alexander said. “We can decentralize the farm.”

The ‘robotics-first’ approach

“At Iron Ox, we’ve designed our entire grow process with a robotics-first approach,” Alexander said. “That means not just adding a robot to an existing process, but engineering everything … around our robots.”

In the company’s first 1,000-square-foot farm, which is already in full production, there is a 1,000-pound robot named Angus that can lift and move the large hydroponic boxes in which the produce is growing, and Iron Ox ’s robotic arm for all the fine manipulation tasks, like seeding and transplanting.

With this current setup, Alexander says they can produce about 26,000 plants per year — equivalent to the output of a one-acre outdoor farm. With this system, the farm grows leafy greens such as romaine, butterhead and kale, and herbs like basil, cilantro and chives — using sensors and collision avoidance systems “similar to that of a self-driving car.”

Alexander claimed that Iron Ox is able to do the equivalent of 30 acres of outdoor farming in just a single acre on its robotic farm. The company wants to build more small farms near urban centers so produce is fresher upon arrival. “Right now fresh produce really isn’t all that fresh. It’s traveling on average 2,000 miles from farm to grocery store, which means a lot of people are eating week-old lettuce or strawberries,” Alexander explained

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