U of M researcher looking at climate and corn

The battle with climate change comes with a battle with uncontrollable, unpredictable weather. University of Minnesota’s Dr. Tim Griffis is looking at giving farmers a head start.

“Nobody can know the future,” Griffis said, “But we need the best data and models possible for making informed decisions about the future.”

Funded partly by the Minnesota Corn Research  & Promotion Council, Griffis and his team are taking a look at how corn produced in Minnesota will fare in the coming years as the climate continues to change.

In order to do this, nine rhizotrons have been built in greenhouses on campus. The rhizotrons, square chambers that allow access for sampling and data collection, are filled with soil from Kenyon, Minn.. Six of the rhizotrons are fully functional. All six are planted to corn, with three receiving current average rainfall amounts and three receiving predicted average amounts for the next 30 years. The current experiment utilizes gas chambers that close and open every 10  minutes to analyze the gaseous emissions at the ground level.

The other three rhizotrons are a work in progress, as they are being built into mesocosms. A mesocosm is a completely enclosed chamber where environmental conditions can be controlled. Some of the variables used will be temperature, CO2 levels, precipitation, and air movement. Griffis plans to have all three mesocosms functioning and planted by mid-summer.

How does this help farmers?
While this work may seem  irrelevant to the farmer, it may act as a “crystal ball” of sorts. The data and information being recorded will help scientists see how corn would do if the predicted climate models occur. This allows farmers to prepare for future growing seasons by choosing the best hybrids for the situation. It also allows genetics researchers to focus on improving current hybrids to adapt to the changing climate conditions.

The work going on in the mesocosm facility is important, as it isn’t easy to do this work out in the field.

Griffis is working with two graduate students, a lab technician, undergraduate interns, and several other researchers. What is great about the facility is that it allows many people to collaborate. It is also a great learning environment and it is benefitting many classes taught at the university.

Other projects
Because it allows many researchers to collaborate, there is more than one project ongoing in the mesocosm facility. One of these “side-dressed” projects is looking at nitrogen fertilizer application and removing the concentrated nitrates from drainage water. Results from this experiment could have huge impacts on how we apply fertilizers and drain the water runoff, resulting in improved water quality throughout the state.

Other additions to the program include NH3 (ammonia) sensors to detect the emissions from the soil.

The bottom line is that our climate is changing. There are acts and guidelines we follow to try and reduce emissions and wastes, but the ball is already rolling and farmers  have to be prepared for when it gets to us. Griffis and his team are on their way to helping farmers take the best steps to being ready for a new growing environment.

Meghan Doyle