The second-most severe category of drought now covers almost half of Kansas, pushing outward from Oklahoma and Texas. This week a brutal heatwave sent temperatures over 100 degrees, putting a major strain on utilities and threatening to devastate this year’s wheat crop. And a new national report suggests that for Kansas and other Great Plains states, the hot, dry spells will become far more common if humanity’s carbon emissions continue unabated.
“We are lobsters,” said David Ocamb, director of the Sierra Club’s Oklahoma chapter, when asked about the 2014 National Climate Assessment (NCA). “We’ve been put inside this cauldron, and the water starts out normal and it gets hotter and hotter and we don’t realize it. If you went back 20 years you would realize it. And it’s that way with the fires, it’s that way with the droughts, it’s that way with any number of things that we’re seeing as a direct result of climate change in Oklahoma.”
The NCA report looks at both a future scenario in which humanity successfully cuts back its carbon dioxide emissions, and a business-as-usual future in which greenhouse gases keep getting added to the atmosphere at a brisk clip. Even under the low emissions scenario, the NCA anticipates significantly more drought and water scarcity for the Great Plains in the next 50 to 100 years, especially for Oklahoma and Texas.
First off, the NCA expects the Great Plains to get much hotter under the high emissions scenario. By mid-century, days over 100ºF could more than double in the northern states and almost quadruple in the southern ones. Even under the low emissions scenario, the number of days over 100ºF could double throughout much of the region. And the environmental, economic, and human damage of the extreme heat in the summer will completely outstrip the benefits of warmer winters.
As with the Midwest, the paradox of climate change for the Great Plains is that it will bring both more precipitation and more drought. The length of most dry spells increases, while the volume of rainfall or snowfall in between those dry spells also goes up. The result is increased water scarcity: because it comes less often the precipitation has less time to soak into the ground or into reservoirs. And the higher average temperatures mean evaporation licks the water back up faster.
Projections for the Great Plains and other areas show water levels in major lakes, river basins, and reservoirs reaching dangerously low levels by the second half of the 21st century.
In fact, for Oklahoma and other areas, the water scarcity problem is already here. Oklahoma has already been grappling with steady drought for the last four years. In keeping with the dry-then-deluge logic of climate change, it was momentarily alleviated in 2013, which turned out to be one of the state’s wettest years on record. “And now we’re back to an extraordinarily dry year,” Ocamb said. “I want to say we’re about nine inches short on this year.”
“In the southwest part of our state in particular, their reservoirs are bone dry and it’s getting to be very dire,” he added.
Under the high emissions scenario, the NCA expects the increased precipitation to hit mainly in the northern states, while Texas and Oklahoma will suffer the worst of the drought increase. In fact, water scarcity has already driven the two states into a protracted legal battle over water rights.
The impact on agriculture will be mixed in the northern states: more precipitation and longer growing seasons may enhance productivity, but warmer winters will also allow more pests to survive. In the southern states, drought and water scarcity will be much more severe, and the damage to American farming and livestock industries much more pronounced: one study the NCA cited projects that the shift to dry land agriculture could cut crop yields by a factor of two.
“A number of our members are small farmers. They run small local farms,” said Ocamb. “And several have had to sell off their entire herds, or very significant numbers of their herds of cattle, because they can’t afford to graze them. The price for grazing crops is just too high.”
That herd culling thanks to drought is actually occurring in a number of states, and has driven beef prices to record highs. Meanwhile, studies by the United Nations, Oxfam, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development anticipate climate change will drive up crop prices by over 40 percent globally, in some cases.
The high temperatures and dry conditions also leave the Great Plains more vulnerable to wildfires. A recent study by the American Geophysical Union found that Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas, among other areas, have seen one of the highest increases in wildfires in the last 30 years. Less than a week ago, a massive wildfire burned up 4,000 acres outside of Oklahoma City, forcing the evacuation of 1,000 people.
“Some of our members were taking pictures outside of their very houses of the fire,” said Ocamb. “It destroyed dozens of residences. One person was killed. And that’s becoming more and more common.”
The Oklahoma legislature is making some significant moves towards water conservation, but like many states in the Great Plains region, its political culture is not exactly friendly to acknowledgments of climate change. Five of the state’s representatives to national office are on the record denying the existence of climate change, including both Senators Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn. All told, the Great Plains have sent 36 Congress members to Washington, D.C. who dismiss climate change as an issue.