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Great Plains Climate Change

Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, Eastern Montana and the Dakotas

Information from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, June, 2009

Rising Temperature and Changing Precipitation

The Great Plains region consists of the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and parts of Texas, Montana, Colorado and New Mexico. This is an area of strong seasonal climate variations. Over the past few decades average temperatures have risen throughout the region. The largest increases have occurred in the northern part of this region. Seasonal changes have been greatest during the winter months. Very cold days are becoming less frequent and very hot days are becoming more frequent.

Today, semi-arid conditions in the western Great Plains gradually transition to a moister climate in the eastern parts of the region. Winter temperatures in the north average 25F, while in the south temperatures over 75F are common. In the south there can be 70 to 100 summer days with temperatures over 90F, while in the north there will be only 10 to 20 days with such high temperatures.

Temperatures are projected to continue to increase over this century, with summer changes being larger than those in winter. Precipitation is also projected to change. Conditions are expected to become wetter in the north and drier in the south. Extreme events such as heat waves, droughts, and heavy rainfall will affect many aspects of life in the Great Plains. Water resources will also be threatened. This will impact the agricultural and ranching activities that provide jobs and income to many of the region's residents.

Altered Wetland Ecosystems
Wetland ecosystems
Climate change is likely to affect native plant and animal species by altering key habitats such as the wetland ecosystems known as prairie potholes or playa lakes. Climate change is likely to combine with other human-induced stresses to further increase the vulnerability of ecosystems to pests, invasive species, and loss of native species. Breeding patterns, water and food supply, and habitat availability will all be affected by climate change. Grassland and plains birds, already stressed by habitat fragmentation, could experience significant shifts and reductions in their ranges. Photo copyright by iStockPhoto / H. Taso.

Shifting Of Optimal Crop Growing Areas
Climate change and crops
Agriculture, ranching, and natural lands, already under pressure due to an increasingly limited water supply, are very likely to also be stressed by rising temperatures. Agriculture covers 70 percent of the Great Plains. As temperatures continue to rise, the optimal zones for growing certain crops will shift. Pests will spread northward and milder winters and earlier springs will encourage greater numbers and earlier emergence of insects. Projected increases in precipitation are unlikely to be sufficient to offset decreasing soil moisture and water availability due to rising temperatures and aquifer depletion. Photo copyright by iStockPhoto / T. Bercic.

Summer Temperature Change by 2080-2099
Southwest US temperature change map
Percentage change in March-April-May precipitation for 2080-2099 compared to 1961-1979 for a lower emissions scenario (left) and a higher emissions scenario (right). Confidence in the projected changes is highest in the hatched areas.

Observed and Projected Temperature Rise
Southwest projected temperature change
Great Plains' temperature already has increased ~1.5F relative to a 1960-1979 baseline. By late this century, it is projected to increase by 2.5F to more than 13F compared with the 1960-1979 baseline, depending on future emissions of heat-trapping gases. The brackets on the thermometers represent the likely range of model projections, though lower or higher outcomes are possible.

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Map of the Great Plains
Climate change will have a number of severe impacts on the great plains states of Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, Eastern Montana and the Dakotas. This page illustrates a number of the more significant impacts. Map by and MapResources..

Health Issues Rise With Climate Change
Climate change and health problems
Ongoing shifts in the region's population from rural areas to urban centers will interact with a changing climate, resulting in a variety of consequences. As young adults move out of small, rural communities, the towns are increasingly populated by a vulnerable demographic of the very old and the very young, placing them more at risk for health issues that are projected to increase with climate change. The region is also home to 65 Native American tribes; the people on tribal lands have limited capacities to respond to climate change. Many reservations already face severe problems with water quality and quantity and these problems are likely to be exacerbated by climate change. Photo copyright by iStockPhoto / J. Abbott.

Declining Water Resources
Irrigation depleats aquifer
Projected increases in temperature, evaporation, and drought frequency add to concerns about the region's declining water resources. Most of the region's water comes from the High Plains aquifer (also referred to by the name of its largest formation, the Ogallala aquifer) from which water withdrawals already outpace recharge. Rising temperatures, faster evaporation rates, and more sustained drought brought on by climate change will add more stress to overtaxed water resources. Learn more about the High Plains Aquifer.

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