Climate change impacts in our backyards:  the Great Plains


How great will the Great Plains still be in the face of global climate disruption?  What can we expect to see in the this vast swath of land, bordered on the west by the Rocky Mountains and on the east by Mississippi River, ranging from Wyoming and North Dakota abutting Canada all the way down to the southern tip of Texas?  How will US agriculture be impacted?  What are decisionmakers doing to prepare in this region?  This 5th post in our series delving into Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States takes a look what is in store for the Great Plains, and how people are beginning to deal with climate consequences in this region.

CSW Series on Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States:  Part 5

The Great Plains, a vast area of temperate grasslands sometimes referred to as “the Prairies,” covers parts or all of ten states—Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming.  The Great Plains region extends beyond US borders:  northward into the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and southward into Mexico.  In the 1800s, the land was best known for huge herds of bison, hunted nearly to extinction.

This region is expected to be under siege from several directions from the effects of dwindling water resources driven by higher heat-related demands, and from higher pest populations made possible by warmer temperatures.  Projected changes in long-term climate and more frequent extreme events such as heat waves, droughts, and heavy rainfall will affect many aspects of life in the Great Plains, including “the region’s already threatened water resources, essential agricultural and ranching activities, unique natural and protected areas, and the health and prosperity of its inhabitants,” to quote the impacts report.  These changes have become apparent in the Great Plains over the last few decades.

Some specifics:

Temperatures Rising

•  “Average temperatures have increased throughout the region, with the largest changes occurring in winter months and over the northern states.  Relatively cold days are becoming less frequent and relatively hot days more frequent.”

Precipitation:  A mixed bag of consequences

•  Unlike the West, precipitation has increased over much of the Great Plains, especially in the north.  In the future, conditions are expected to become wetter in the north and drier in the south.

•  More precipitation and warmer winter temperatures in the northern region of the Great Plains could mean a boon for some types of crop-growing.

•  The availability of water resources is already at issue on the Great Plains.  Current water usage cannot be sustained, as the High Plains aquifer continues to be tapped faster than the rate of recharge.

•  Future projections do not bode well for water availability: “increasing temperatures, faster evaporation rates, and more sustained droughts brought on by climate change will only add more stress to overtaxed water sources.”

• “Projected increases in precipitation are unlikely to be sufficient to offset decreasing soil moisture and water availability due to rising temperatures and aquifer depletion.”


•  More than two thirds (70%) of the land in the Great Plains is agricultural; farming and ranching are major industries, and the Great Plains is a major food source for the nation.
•  Temperature increases over the coming century will lead to shifts in optimal zones for particular crops. For example, “plant species that mature earlier and are more resistant to disease and pests are more likely to thrive under warmer condition.”

•  However, acting as a threat multiplier, climate change can alter the environment in such a way that insects that are pests could begin to pose a major threat to Great Plains agriculture.  Insect species “that were historically unable to survive in the Great Plains’ cooler areas are expected to spread northward,” according to the June 2009 impacts report.  “Milder winters and earlier springs also will encourage greater numbers and earlier emergence of insects.”

•  Many who prefer to emphasize the positive aspects of climate change, the potential benefits, like to talk about the ability of rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere to increase crop growth.  However, it is important to note that elevated CO2 also allows some types of weeds grow even faster than planted crops, and tends to favor invasive species.

•  Increased crop and livestock diversification will be needed to adapt to a warmer climate; the report also notes that a transition from irrigated to rain-fed agriculture may be desirable, especially since the northern regions can expect more rain.

•  The report issues a stern warning: “producers who can adapt to changing climate conditions are likely to see their businesses survive; some might even thrive. Others, without resources or ability to adapt effectively, will lose out.”  Adaptation measures are underway, with some farmers returning to “dryland farming” rather than relying soley on irrigation for their crops, preserving crop residue to help the soil absorb more moisture from rain and ease the burden on already-stressed groundwater.  Farmers are beginning to employ dynamic cropping systems to increase crop diversity and improve water-use efficiency.

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Preparing for climate change consequences:  What is the current state of play in Great Plains states?

We offer some examples:

Montana: The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has created a Climate Change Action Committee (CCAC) tasked with inventorying Montana’s greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 to 2020 and developing policy recommendations for emissions mitigation.  A climate change action plan has been completed.

Kansas:  The Kansas Energy and Environmental Policy Advisory Group (KEEP) was created in 2008 to identify opportunities for the state to pursue energy efficiency and respond to the challenges of global climate change.  As identified by KEEP, the impacts of climate change that Kansas is projected to experience include: decreases in growing season precipitation like those of the worst Dust Bowl years, with temperature increases exceeding Dust Bowl averages by about 3° C (5.4° F), fluctuation or decline in crop levels in accordance with higher temperatures and reduced irrigation water supplies, intrusion of expanding disease ranges that may increase stresses on livestock production, and an increase in the frequency and duration of heat waves and disease vectors with the potential for a corresponding increase in human mortality rates.  KEEP will inventory statewide greenhouse gas emissions and develop statewide goals for reductions in all economic sectors through 2025.

Colorado: The Colorado Climate Project (CCP), an initiative of a non-profit organization composed of local governments, businesses, and other non-profits, has developed recommendations for emissions mitigation and reduction of the state’s vulnerabilities to climate-related impacts.  Possible impacts identified by the project include: “more frequent, hotter, and longer-lasting heat waves; less snow and earlier snowmelt; less available water in summer months, when demand is greatest; more frequent, more severe, and longer lasting droughts; more frequent and larger wildfires, and the spread of diseases and pests” (  Governor Bill Ritter, Jr. has announced a Colorado Climate Agenda, which includes goals for reducing emissions 20% by 2020 and 80% by 2050, in accordance with CCP’s recommendations.

New Mexico: In 2005, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson established the New Mexico Climate Change Action Council and the New Mexico Climate Change Advisory Group.  The Group identifies the significant concerns that New Mexico and other Western states have about the impacts of climate change on the local environment, including “the potential for prolonged drought, severe forest fires, warmer temperatures, increased snowmelt, reduced snow pack and other effects.”  The Governor has issued energy efficiency standards for state agency buildings and vehicles, and has created several incentive initiatives in order to promote energy efficiency and the growth of clean energy.  Incentives include solar energy tax rebates, and an energy production tax credit to provide incentive for renewable energy development.  In addition, Governor Richardson and Governor Schwarzenegger of California have committed the Western Governor’s Association to “goals of 30,000 megawatts of clean energy produced in the west by 2015 and a 20% increase in energy efficiency by 2020.”

Additional posts will look at the Southwest, Northwest, Alaska, Islands, and Coasts.  The seven sectors addressed in the report are:  Water Resources, Energy Supply and Use, Transportation, Agriculture, Ecosystems, Human Health, and Society.

See related posts:

Part 1:  “Global Climate Change Impacts in the US”—Report Overview (Part 1 of a series)

Part 2:  Climate change in our backyards:  the Northeast

Part 3:  Climate change in our backyards:  the Southeast

Part 4:  Climate change impacts in our backyards:  the Midwest


Primary Source:  Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States.  See the full, very-accessibly-written report for a more extensive discussion, including a substantial complement of graphics.

Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS):  Backgrounder on the Great Plains

Ojima, D and J. M. Lackett, 2002.  PREPARING FOR A CHANGING CLIMATE:  The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change (Note: This Central Great Plains Climate Change Impacts Assessment is one of approximately 20 regional climate change reports produced as part of the US National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change, meeting the requirement of the US Global Change Research Act.)

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