Fast Company

Simulating Droughts To Find Out How Thirsty Plants React

Plants need water to live, but exactly how much? Scientists have built a simulator to figure out how to far we can push crops before they die of thirst, in preparation for a hotter climate.

It's a research project that seems particularly fitting for this year, when Texas has suffered (and continues to suffer) through the worst drought year on record. Researchers at the University of Missouri have built a pair of drought simulators that show what happens to crops when they are extremely parched.

The simulators are actually just greenhouses that move on a set of tracks. When it is raining, the greenhouses hover over the plants, and when it's sunny, they move out of the way. A test plot is kept next to the simulators for comparison purposes.

Plants die in a drought. We don't need more research to prove that. Instead, the researchers plan to experiment with different intensities, durations, and timing of droughts to see how crops react. Eventually, they hope to build more simulators elsewhere in the state, where researchers can gauge drought reactions based on different soil types, crop species, forage, and more. "Our objective is to develop real-world products and practices to improve food security and increase profitability for farmers," said Felix Fritschi, assistant professor of plant sciences at the University of Missouri, in a statement. If farmers knew exactly how little water different plants need to survive, or what soil type makes plants die faster without water, they can make smarter planting, harvesting, and irrigation decisions.

Farmers already have a powerful tool to deal with abnormal weather with WeatherBill, an insurance program for farmers that pays automatically if there is unexpected drought, rain, snow, heat, or cold. Imagine: if farmer's had the tools to breed more drought-resistant plants and also received insurance payments during periods of extreme weather, they might be able to have some actual financial security.

[Image: University of Missouri]

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