The contribution of solar brightening to the US maize yield trend

By Matthijs Tollenaar et al.

Nature Climate Change doi:10.1038/nclimate3234
Received Accepted Published online

Predictions of crop yield under future climate change are predicated on historical yield trends1, 2, 3, hence it is important to identify the contributors to historical yield gains and their potential for continued increase. The large gains in maize yield in the US Corn Belt have been attributed to agricultural technologies4, ignoring the potential contribution of solar brightening (decadal-scale increases in incident solar radiation) reported for much of the globe since the mid-1980s. In this study, using a novel biophysical/empirical approach, we show that solar brightening contributed approximately 27% of the US Corn Belt yield trend from 1984 to 2013. Accumulated solar brightening during the post-flowering phase of development of maize increased during the past three decades, causing the yield increase that previously had been attributed to agricultural technology. Several factors are believed to cause solar brightening, but their relative importance and future outlook are unknown5, 6, 7, 8, 9, making prediction of continued solar brightening and its future contribution to yield gain uncertain. Consequently, results of this study call into question the implicit use of historical yield trends in predicting yields under future climate change scenarios.

This article appeared on the Nature Climate Change website at