By JOHN FLESHER, The Associated Press
Climate change will bring more drought, fierce storms and searing heat to the Great Plains, causing hardships that will test the region’s legendry capacity to cope with severe weather, says a report by the National Climate Assessment.
Despite its sharply contrasting landscapes, the eight-state region extending from Texas to Montana by way of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas and Wyoming will share one transcendent challenge: water.
TRIPLE DIGITS: The southern Plains region averages seven days a year with triple-digit temperatures. That number should quadruple by mid-century, while the northern Plains should get twice as many 100-degree days as they do now. The hotter conditions will bring greater evaporation of surface waters, inflict heat stress on people and animals and raise demand for air conditioning. As young people head to cities, rural areas will have increasing numbers of elderly who are vulnerable to heat.
Other extreme weather will include heavy rainfall and more intense tropical storms and hurricanes along Texas’ Gulf coast, where rising sea levels could worsen damage from storm surges.
WATER WOES: Water scarcity will hamper the region’s energy production. Competition for water to cool electric plants and to drill for oil and natural gas using hydraulic fracturing will intensify. Marginal lands will become deserts, while the rain that does fall will often come during storms that will increase flooding, degrade stream quality and erode topsoil. Dwindling municipal supplies will cause problems in fast-growing cities, primarily in Texas.
AGRICULTURE: In the northern Plains, expected increases in winter snowfall and spring rain may help crops during the early growing season, although some fields may be too wet to plant. Longer growing seasons may allow cultivation of second annual crops. But pest insects that previously died off in winter will increasingly survive, and winter crops that leave dormancy too soon will be vulnerable to spring freezes.
Farming will be hit hard in the central and southern Plains, as rainfall declines and higher temperatures increase evaporation. Demand for irrigation will rise, and the Ogallala and High Plains aquifers will be further depleted. Livestock will suffer from heat and feed grain production may slump.
FLORA AND FAUNA: Birds, fish and mammals will be affected by changes in seasonal lakes and wildfires. Changing temperatures will affect mating behavior and predator-prey relationships, while increasing carbon dioxide levels could make the grasses and leaves that animals eat less nutritious. Clashes may increase between those favoring development and land fragmentation against advocates of conserving prairie and other habitat for troubled species such as the sage grouse.
ADAPTATION A NECESSITY: Communities and states are inadequately prepared for a hotter, drier and stormier Great Plains, largely because many government officials have yet to take the threat seriously. Opportunities abound for conservation and climate-sensitive development, such as protecting native grasslands and restoring wetlands.