Agriculture as a Sensitive Indicator to Climate Change and Climate Variability

The agricultural sector is probably the most sensitive indicator of changes in general climatic conditions and in climatic variability. Agriculture can be particularly sensitive to climate anomalies. For example, crops typically grown under certain agroclimatic conditions may face large increases in yield variability due to weather extremes during the growing season. Persistent extremes, such as drought, excessively hot summers, and excessively cold winters may alter the growing season, cause soil erosion, and land degradation. Other factors such as crop diseases and crop pests may be influenced by variable climatic conditions in a specific growing area.

The two primary portions of the training program for an agricultural meteorologist focus on operational services and developing new techniques to support these services for farmers, extension service personnel, and the agricultural community, in general. However, an essential training component must also be devoted to the current awareness of agriculture's keen sensitivity to climate change and climate vulnerability. Further, given the vulnerability to agricultural losses that occur in many local communities caused by weather extremes, it is essential that agricultural meteorologists take a proactive role in understanding local adaptation and mitigation measures that farmers may apply to reduce the negative impact of weather and climate extremes on their farm productivity.

The type of professional skills needed to assess the vulnerability of a community to climate variability will be those of integration and simulation where different scenarios will be evaluated and contrasted in a logical manner and then explanations or causes can be related to a meaningful impact on agriculture. So, care must be taken to expose students to appropriate information and tools so they can extrapolate it to their own situations. They need to be taught to reflect on and apply theories to specific problems. If they can take the theoretical information and argue its relevance to the problem, then they may be able to deduce a logical solution or a number of options available to address the problem. One would also need to learn how to evaluate the various options available and to follow through to predict the consequences of the various options.

These skills are not usually acquired under the normal teaching approach that often focuses on memorisation, identification and description of the situations or superficial conditions (Biggs, 1999). This type of superficial learning needs to be supplemented with in-depth learning that will stimulate the adoption of the required skills. One of the methods of stimulating this learning is problem-based learning (Boud and Feletti, 1999). In a typical problem-based learning situation the student will be faced with a typical problem and then guided through the necessary steps to acquire the skills needed to solve the problem (Walker, 2002). The students need to begin to pull together isolated knowledge, skills and experience into a holistic in-depth understanding of the conditions and situation. This will enable them to develop a strategy for a structured approach to problem solving. This problem-based learning makes active use of the students' existing knowledge (Boud and Feletti, 1999) that in turn encourages the student to gain confidence and therefore be able to succeed sooner.

Although specific technical meteorological skills are needed, sometimes the general professional, information and transferable skills are in need of further development as well. If these skills can be improved and applied to the variability of the climate in a certain area so as to address the specific needs and requirements of the clients, then agricultural meteorologists will be able to consider the problems and provide some solutions for their clients. These skills and techniques are invaluable to students in training in agricultural meteorology. The subject of climate change and climate variability is complex in itself. The impacts on agriculture are enormous. How farmers and the agricultural community respond to potential adaptation and mitigation measures to cope with variable climatic conditions will likely depend upon the ability of agricultural meteorologists to successfully communicate with their clients.

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