In the future, farmers may need crops that can cope with intensifying atmospheric drying, also known as vapor pressure deficit, according to newly published research from the University of Minnesota and Western University in Ontario, Canada.

Less vapor pressure causes the atmosphere to pull water vapor from other sources such as animals and plants, causing them to dry out and leading to lower yields, even in water-rich states like Minnesota, said senior author Walid Sadok, an assistant professor in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at the University of Minnesota.

Atmospheric drying has been observed worldwide since the early 2000s, has been rising in recent years and looks to worsen in coming decades as climate change intensifies, the university said. The findings were published in the journal Global Change Biology.

“We believe a climate change-driven increase in atmospheric drying will reduce plant productivity and crop yields — both in Minnesota and globally,” said Sadok.

To adapt, various plant species — including wheat, corn, and even birch trees — reprogram themselves to grow smaller, shorter and more resistant to drought, even if the drought itself does not happen. They become less able to fix atmospheric CO2 to perform photosynthesis and produce seeds. The net result? Productivity decreases.

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"As we race to increase production to feed a bigger population, this is a new hurdle that will need to be cleared,” said Sadok. “Atmospheric drying could limit yields, even in regions where irrigation or soil moisture is not limiting, such as Minnesota.”

The university said that their findings could help produce varieties that are more resistant to climate change.

The research was funded by the Minnesota Wheat Research & Promotion Council, the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.