A hidden trove of historical crop yield data from Africa shows that corn – long believed to tolerate hot temperatures – is a likely victim of global warming.

Stanford agricultural scientist David Lobell and researchers at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) report in the inaugural issue of Nature Climate Change next week that a clear negative effect of warming on maize – or corn – production was evident in experimental crop trial data conducted in Africa by the organization and its partners from 1999 to 2007.

Led by Lobell, the researchers combined data from 20,000 trials in sub-Saharan Africa with weather data recorded at stations scattered across the region. They found that a temperature rise of a single degree Celsius would cause yield losses for 65 percent of the present maize-growing region in Africa – provided the crops received the optimal amount of rainfall. Under drought conditions, the entire maize-growing region would suffer yield losses, with more than 75 percent of areas predicted to decline by at least 20 percent for 1 degree Celsius of warming.

"The pronounced effect of heat on maize was surprising because we assumed maize to be among the more heat-tolerant crops," said Marianne Banziger, co-author of the study and deputy director general for research at CIMMYT.

"Essentially, the longer a maize crop is exposed to temperatures above 30 C, or 86 F, the more the yield declines," she said. "The effect is even larger if drought and heat come together, which is expected to happen more frequently with climate change in Africa, Asia or Central America, and will pose an added challenge to meeting the increasing demand for staple crops on our planet."

Similar sources of information elsewhere in the developing world could improve crop forecasting for other vast regions where data has been lacking, according to Lobell, who is lead author of the paper describing the study.

"Projections of climate change impacts on food production have been hampered by not knowing exactly how crops fair when it gets hot," Lobell said. "This study helps to clear that issue up, at least for one important crop."