The authors examine recent changes in three agro-climate indices (frost days, thermal time, and heat stress index) in North America (centered around the continental United States) using observations from a historical climate network and an ensemble of 17 global climate models (GCMs) from the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC AR4). Agro-climate indices provide the basis for analyzing agricultural time series that are unbiased by long-term technological intervention. Observations from the last 60 years (1951-2010) confirm conclusions of previous studies showing continuing declines in the number of frost days and increases in thermal time. Increases in heat stress are largely confined to the western half of the continent. The authors do not observe accelerating agro-climate warming trends in the most recent decade of observations. The spatial variability of the temporal trends in GCMs is lower compared to the observed patterns, which still show some regional cooling trends. GCM skill, defined as the ability to reproduce observed patterns (i.e., correlation and error) and variability, is highest for frost days and lowest for heat stress patterns. Individual GCM skill is incorporated into two model weighting schemes to gauge their ability to reduce predictive uncertainty for agro-climate indices. The two weighted GCM ensembles do not substantially improve results compared to the unweighted ensemble mean. The lack of agreement between simulated and observed heat stress is relatively robust with respect to how the heuristic is defined and appears to reflect a weakness in the ability of this last generation of GCMs to reproduce this impact-relevant aspect of the climate system. However, it remains a question for future work as to whether the discrepancies between observed and simulated trends primarily reflect fundamental errors in model physics or an incomplete treatment of relevant regional climate forcings.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Atmospheric Science