The American equivalent of Goyder’s Line

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Expand view Topic review: The American equivalent of Goyder’s Line

The American equivalent of Goyder’s Line

Post by HBS Guy » 13 Apr 2018, 20:04

It runs North–South along the 100th meridian:


John Wesley Powell, in the nineteenth century, introduced the notion that the 100th meridian divides the North American continent into arid western regions and humid eastern regions. This concept remains firmly fixed in the national imagination. It is reexamined in terms of climate, hydrology, vegetation, land use, settlement, and the agricultural economy. It is shown there is a stark east–west gradient in aridity roughly at the 100th meridian that is well expressed in hydroclimate, soil moisture, and “potential vegetation.” The gradient arises from atmospheric circulations and moisture transports. In winter, the arid regions west of the 100th meridian are shielded from Pacific storm-related precipitation and are too far west to benefit from Atlantic storms. In summer, the southerly flow on the western flank of the North Atlantic subtropical high has a westerly component over the western plains, bringing air from the interior southwest, but it also brings air from the Gulf of Mexico over the eastern plains, generating a west–east moisture transport and precipitation gradient. The aridity gradient is realized in soil moisture and a west-to-east transition from shortgrass to tallgrass prairie. The gradient is sharp in terms of greater fractional coverage of developed land east of the 100th meridian than to the west. Farms are fewer but larger west of the meridian, reflective of lower land productivity. Wheat and corn cultivation preferentially occur west and east of the 100th meridian, respectively. The 100th meridian is a very real arid–humid divide in the physical climate and landscape, and this has exerted a powerful influence on human settlement and agricultural development.

And it is moving east, just like Goyder’s line is moving south:

The 100th meridian bisects the Great Plains of the United States and effectively divides the continent into more arid western and less arid eastern halves and is well expressed in terms of vegetation, land hydrology, crops, and the farm economy. Here, it is considered how this arid–humid divide will change in intensity and location during the current century under rising greenhouse gases. It is first shown that state-of-the-art climate models from phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project generally underestimate the degree of aridity of the United States and simulate an arid–humid divide that is too diffuse. These biases are traced to excessive precipitation and evapotranspiration and inadequate blocking of eastward moisture flux by the Pacific coastal ranges and Rockies. Bias-corrected future projections are developed that modify observationally based measures of aridity by the model-projected fractional changes in aridity. Aridity increases across the United States, and the aridity gradient weakens. The main contributor to the changes is rising potential evapotranspiration, while changes in precipitation working alone increase aridity across the southern and decrease across the northern United States. The “effective 100th meridian” moves to the east as the century progresses. In the current farm economy, farm size and percent of county under rangelands increase and percent of cropland under corn decreases as aridity increases. Statistical relations between these quantities and the bias-corrected aridity projections suggest that, all else being equal (which it will not be), adjustment to changing environmental conditions would cause farm size and rangeland area to increase across the plains and percent of cropland under corn to decrease in the northern plains as the century advances.

An article in a Yale bulletin summarises the two studies:
Studying rainfall and temperature data since 1980, Seager and his colleagues found this climatic boundary has already shifted east about 140 miles so that it now sits closer to the 98th meridian. And it will continue to move east as warming global temperatures increase evaporation from the soil and change precipitation patterns, they concluded.

According to a press release by Columbia University’s Earth Institute, “Seager predicts that as drying progresses, farms further and further east will have to consolidate and become larger in order to remain viable. Unless farmers turn to irrigation or otherwise adapt, they will have to turn from corn to wheat or some other more suitable crop. Large expanses of cropland may fail altogether, and have to be converted to western-style grazing range. Water supplies could become a problem for urban areas.”