Climate concerns drive future of California almonds

Almond orchards are a multi-decade investment. No one can be exactly certain what the future holds, but orchard development requires that we make decisions with the best information available.

While there are plenty of moving parts to that decision-making – global markets, labor cost and availability, SGMA, state and regional regulations, etc – part of that decision-making process requires thinking through what growing conditions are expected to be like in the next 20-30 years.

Recent years have brought hot temperatures, heat waves, droughts and rain that have broken records. Research is finding that we should plan for more of these types of years in the next few decades, and expect future growing conditions in the Central Valley that will be warmer and both wetter and dryer. What does that mean? And what can we do to plan for it?

This summer was California’s hottest summer on record according to the National Weather Service, with many locations in the Sacramento Valley breaking one-day records and heat wave records. While we haven’t had a consistent progress of record-breaking summers in a row, we are seeing more of them.

This is in keeping with what research is telling us to expect. It’s not expected that every year will break temperature records. We’ll continue to experience cool spells and hot spells, but the cool spells will be a little less cool, and the hot spells will be even hotter.

Summer temperatures are expected to increase, on average, about 2° F in the next 20-30 years. Scientists expect at least 50% more extreme heat days in the summer, and at least a 40% increase in the number of heat waves. This will translate to higher amounts of water use by trees through increased transpiration and worker safety issues, among many other concerns. This will also translate to more growing degree days for pests in our orchards.

There’s been no rest for the weary when it comes to seasonal rainfall total in the last few years. We went from the historic drought of 2012-2016 to record-breaking rainfall the winter of 2016-2017, to the last two dry winters that have many reservoirs and water tables crying “uncle.”

In the coming two decades, scientists expect Northern California will have about 50% more extreme wet seasons (similar to the winter of 2016-2017) than we had in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. But also in the coming two decades, scientists expect an increase in extremely dry rain seasons (slightly drier than 2013-2014), about 25% more than what we had in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s also expected that falls and springs will be dryer, meaning our rainfall, when we get it, will be
compacted into fewer months. So, if you’re looking at decade averages, our rainfall averages will be about the same as the past, but on a year-to-year level, we’ll be experiencing more wet years and more dry years.

The silver lining of these increased wet years is they should make multi-year droughts become less frequent.

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