Separating heat stress from moisture stress: Analyzing yield response to high temperature in irrigated maize

Elizabeth K. Carter, Jeff Melkonian, Susan J. Riha, Stephen B. Shaw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Scopus citations


Several recent studies have indicated that high air temperatures are limiting maize (Zea mays L.) yields in the US Corn Belt and project significant yield losses with expected increases in growing season temperatures. Further work has suggested that high air temperatures are indicative of high evaporative demand, and that decreases in maize yields which correlate to high temperatures and vapor pressure deficits (VPD) likely reflect underlying soil moisture limitations. It remains unclear whether direct high temperature impacts on yields, independent of moisture stress, can be observed under current temperature regimes. Given that projected high temperature and moisture may not co-vary the same way as they have historically, quantitative analyzes of direct temperature impacts are critical for accurate yield projections and targeted mitigation strategies under shifting temperature regimes. To evaluate yield response to above optimum temperatures independent of soil moisture stress, we analyzed climate impacts on irrigated maize yields obtained from the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) corn yield contests for Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri. In irrigated maize, we found no evidence of a direct negative impact on yield by daytime air temperature, calculated canopy temperature, or VPD when analyzed seasonally. Solar radiation was the primary yield-limiting climate variable. Our analyses suggested that elevated night temperature impacted yield by increasing rates of phenological development. High temperatures during grain-fill significantly interacted with yields, but this effect was often beneficial and included evidence of acquired thermo-tolerance. Furthermore, genetics and management - information uniquely available in the NCGA contest data - explained more yield variability than climate, and significantly modified crop response to climate. Thermo-acclimation, improved genetics and changes to management practices have the potential to partially or completely offset temperature-related yield losses in irrigated maize.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number094012
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 7 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • acclimation
  • climate variability
  • irrigation
  • maize
  • solar radiation
  • temperature
  • yield

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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