Shannan Sweet inside melting glacier

Upstate New York native Shannan Sweet is the newest NatureNet postdoc to join the Cornell–Nature Conservancy team. Working with soil ecologist David Wolfe, she is identifying climate-driven weak points in the state’s agricultural water resources 

Shannan Sweet: Protecting NY Water Resources

September 15, 2016

Shannan Sweet inside melting glacier

Upstate New York native Shannan Sweet is the newest NatureNet postdoc to join the Cornell–Nature Conservancy team. Working with soil ecologist David Wolfe, she is identifying climate-driven weak points in the state’s agricultural water resources and developing tools to help local farmers successfully adapt to climate change.

Sweet arrived on campus this August as New York State confronted a historic drought. The dry conditions sent her into the field immediately to interview local farmers about the drought’s impacts on their crops and water use. According to her preliminary survey, our region has been more severely affected than farms in eastern and northern New York. “Rainfed crops have been the hardest hit,” Sweet says. “Many farmers are reporting estimated losses of 60 to 90 percent among their field crops. They did not have enough irrigation equipment and their ponds and wells were not sufficient to keep up with irrigation needs.”

Shannan Sweet swarmed by mosquitos in AlaskaSwarmed by mosquitoes in Alaska

Sweet’s Columbia University PhD research focused on how climate change is affecting the vegetation in Alaska’s arctic tundra. In Alaska, she found areas experiencing an earlier start to the growing season and shifts in the composition of insect and bird communities. Climate change will bring similar changes to central New York. “It is imperative to plan for the future to keep agriculture in New York viable, while simultaneously protecting the state’s water,” says Sweet.

Now back in the Finger Lakes region where she grew up, Sweet aims to support farmers with practical decision-making tools as they face serious climate-driven risks and also new agricultural opportunities, thanks to warmer winters and longer growing seasons. Every decision farmers make—from the crops they plant, to when and how much they irrigate, to the fertilizers and pesticides they use—ultimately affect the region’s water quantity and quality, with major implications for New York’s economic, environmental, and human health.

Shannan Sweet testing soilTesting soil

Sweet is gathering data throughout New York on current land and water use, crop distribution, and farming practices. By integrating this information with climate projections and potential changes in land and water use, she will be able to create geospatial maps of the state’s water vulnerabilities—present and future. Sweet’s work will expand The Nature Conservancy’s Natural Resource Navigator tool for natural resource managers, contributing new water management recommendations and tools to benefit the agricultural sector.

Sweet’s most vital goal is to bring her findings to farmers across New York, with straightforward recommendations for climate-smart agricultural practices that will protect both farms and vulnerable water resources. In her preliminary interviews, several local farmers told Sweet that they plan to use more cover crops, mulches, and no-till farming practices to deal with future droughts. These are steps in the right direction, she says.

“As a native of this region, I have a vested interest in the future of New York’s agricultural and water resources, as well as the communities that depend on them. We need both nutritious food and clean water to survive,” Sweet explains. “Because agriculture is directly linked to climate, and water feeds agriculture, climate-smart farming practices and agricultural adaptation to climate change are key to our survival, both as a species and as a planet.”

Read more about Sweet in TNC's Cool Green Science blog.

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