I'll try that Nunavut Merlot, please...

This week's 'Ask A ScienceBlogger' focuses on reports such as those in National Geographic and DailyKos that global warming is having, and will progressively have great influence, on wine grape-growing. The idea is that grapes grown for premium wine production are much more sensitive to climate than table grapes or many other agricultural products, making them an excellent living laboratory 'canary in a coalmine." A very appropriate question this week as we launched our feature, The Friday Fermentable, last week.

This issue has been bandied the wine industry over the last several years but this week's renewed enthusiasm for the topic comes from an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) entitled, "Extreme heat reduces and shifts United States premium wine production in the 21st century." To the credit of PNAS, they have made this article open access, so click away (here's the HTML portal from which you can get the PDF as well). I also found that AP science writer, Randolph E. Schmid, put up a good review of the paper and its context that appeared throughout the American print media.

Like many other issues requiring legislative intervention, one begins to get buy-in when pet issues of politicians are being affected. As Skralyx noted tongue-in-cheek at the Daily Kos:

"And it's an interesting paradox for Republicans: Keep the liberal elitist wine industry afloat, or let the profits from it go off to the French. Or worse yet, the ultra-liberal Swedes or Norwegians (after the warming)!"

I might add, tongue-in-cheek, that we might get some traction on this global warming issue and that Kyoto thing if President Bush would get back to drinking (but not the cocaine, okay?).

But the Ask A ScienceBlogger question was, "What other changes are we going to see during our lifetimes because of global warming?" That's a little bit of a toughie to limit the changes to our lifetimes, but actually quite illustrative because that's the scale upon which we think. That's part of the reason it is hard for anti-evolutionists to grasp much of the scientific evidence for evolution, because our existences are but a speck on Planet Earth's 4.6 billion year timeline.

So, here are some of my predictions:

1. The global ski industry will be dealt a heavy blow. This concern may at first seem a hoity-toity concern of the affluent, but Colorado's ski industry pumps $1.7 to $2 billion (USD) into the state's economy, providing jobs to tens of thousands in communities where the climate and terrain leave little else for subsistence if skiing went down the potty (of course, I have a good many environmental friends in the western US who would be happy to see this happen and restore wilderness back to areas overtaken by the ski industry). I can't get the USA Today map to render here, but there is a big target right over Utah and the western 2/3rds of Colorado where average surface temperatures are predicted to increase by 8 F/ 4.5 C by the end of this century.

And, of course, this is not just a US issue but would have tremendous effects on local economies in Europe and South America, in particular. (If you're interested on this environmental side of the skiing industry and how the industry is trying to be greener, check out David A Shaw's article in Grist from back in February.)

2. The steep increases in international rates of asthma will take off even more due to enviromental pollutants and ground-level ozone. All this while the US FDA recently announced http://www.fda.gov/cder/drug/shortages/#Currenta shortage in the short-acting, rescue inhaler component, albuterol. Lovely.

3. Speaking of drug shortages, it may come as a surprise to many that many drugs are synthesized from natural products available on the global wholesale market, or are themselves purified in their finished form from plants. For example, the morphine used for severe post-surgical or cancer pain is still derived from poppies (Papaver somniferum) grown legally in undisclosed locations. Since 25% of prescription drugs are derived originally from natural sources (with plants leading the list of bacteria, fungi, and marine creatures), a good many are similarly made from plants whose production of key metabolites is influenced by growing conditions. Global warming could wreak havoc on the global availability of key synthetic intermediates - and if you think I'm telling you a self-serving natural products scientist line, just look to the recent shortage of Tamiflu, whose key starting material artemesin, is derived from the plant, Artemesia annua:

"We are working on identifying additional sources of artemesinin, but this process takes time as Novartis strictly adheres to good manufacturing practices in its production," Novartis said. "We follow a rigorous process of ensuring that our suppliers comply with the high quality standards we expect."

There's a wonderfully comprehensive PDF on this specific issue written by Dr Dana Dalrymple of the US Agency for International Development.

So, kids, the field of economic botany can be a very interesting and rewarding career path if you like the challenges of getting plants to do chemistry for you in the face of global warming-mediated alterations in growth conditions.


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In line with your comments on economic botany: Is it true or just urban legend that Cannibus sativa produces more resin as a result of heat stress?

By natural cynic (not verified) on 26 Jul 2006 #permalink

natural cynic: are you asking whether heat stress creates more volume of resin or greater concentrations of cannabinoids? Heat stress certainly influences the secondary metabolite profile of many plants, especially winemaking grapes, but I'd have to confer with a botany colleague, probably outside the US, because heat stress may affect different cultivars in various ways. Of course, if you live in the US, your question is a purely theoretical one, right?