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Elder Climate LegacY

Weather in the northern Great Plains, which include Nebraska, has long presented big challenges. Winters bring snow and ice. Tornadoes storm across the landscape. The semi-arid climate in western counties puts stress on the water supply, and conditions worsen when droughts arrive, parching the land.

The sobering climate-change report just released by the federal government says residents in our region should expect even more weather challenges in coming decades — with an all-important obligation to work cooperatively to adapt to them.

The section of the National Climate Assessment focusing on the northern Great Plains points to future climate challenges: higher overall temperatures as the century moves forward, with significant changes in evaporation rates, soil moisture and groundwater levels. In coming decades the region is expected to see greater weather volatility, with an increased occurrence of “low-probability, but high-severity and high-impact, events” such as heavy downpours, intense hailstorms, floods and droughts. Our region is expected have fewer hailstorms, according to the report’s section on agriculture, but those that occur will be more severe, increasing the probability of crop damage by 40 percent.

The range of challenges will be considerable, from greater weather damage to railroad tracks to higher demands for electric power for summer cooling to a heightened threat to wetlands important to migratory birds and other wildlife. Adapting to the changes “will likely require transformative changes in agricultural management,” the report says. Higher temperatures and decreased soil moisture will threaten crop yields. The region will be vulnerable to an increased spread of weeds and invasive species.

One positive, the report says, is that the basic threat is generally familiar to many agricultural producers. As a result, “many adaptations have already been implemented by a subset of producers in this region, providing opportunities for assessment, further development and adoption.”

The report notes positively that in 2014, Nebraska completed a statewide climate change assessment report led by University of Nebraska-Lincoln scientists: “Officials were then able to use this report to convene eight sector-based round table discussions in 2015, engaging more than 350 people, to identify a suite of key issues, strategies and next steps” for possible action. The report praises the Platte Basin Timelapse project, which had major Nebraska input in developing multi-media stories and gathering scientific data about the Platte River.

A central message is that the Plains region can benefit significantly when agricultural producers, climate scientists and natural resources managers (such as Nebraska’s natural resources districts) work together, exploring options and sharing information about effective farming and ranching approaches.

Practical collaboration, indeed, is the best path forward overall for Nebraska, bringing together farmers and ranchers, NRDs, university researchers, businesses, municipalities, utilities and households. The more that the range of Nebraskans embrace the scientific findings and join together on workable solutions, the better our state will fare in meeting this ongoing, multifaceted challenge.

***Article originally appeared in the Omaha World Herald's "Editorial". on Nov. 28 2018.

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