Water for Food

Climate Change: Implications for Nebraska

October 3, 2014

Dr. Donald A. Wilhite, Professor Applied Climate Science School of Natural Resources Fellow, Daugherty Water for Food Institute, University of Nebraska

Dr. Donald A. Wilhite, Professor
Applied Climate Science
School of Natural Resources
Fellow, Daugherty Water for Food Institute, University of Nebraska

By guest contributor Don Wilhite,
DWFI fellow and University of Nebraska-Lincoln climatologist

As Nebraska’s climate changes, the state faces significant economic, social and environmental risks. Because the magnitude and speed of projected changes in climate are unprecedented, it’s imperative that we develop strategies now to adapt to the numerous consequences we’ll continue to experience. Climate change is happening on a global scale, but adapting to change must begin at the local level, where climatic impacts are felt.

University of Nebraska faculty recently completed a report, “Understanding and Assessing Climate Change: Implications for Nebraska.” The report’s goal is to inform policymakers, natural resource managers and the public about the state of the science on climate change, current projections for ongoing changes over the 21st century, current and potential future impacts and, finally, management and policy implications of these changes. We hope this report enables Nebraskans to prepare for and adapt to current and future changes in our climate.

We project Nebraska’s climate to change in several key ways:

  • Temperature: Nebraska’s temperatures are projected to increase from 4-5°F to 8-9°F by the last quarter of the 21st century, depending on future levels of heat-trapping gas emissions.
  • High temperature days: Under both low and high emissions scenarios, the number of high temperature stress days over 100°F is projected to increase substantially in Nebraska and throughout the Great Plains region. By mid-century, temperatures experienced during the 2012 drought and heat wave will become typical.
  • Precipitation: By mid-century, the northern Plains will become wetter, while the southern Plains will continue to become drier. Nebraska, located in the central Plains, has not experienced the increase in precipitation that has been observed in the northern Plains states. Projections for Nebraska show little change in annual precipitation and, perhaps, a decrease in the summer months.
  • Drought: Nebraska is expected to experience more frequent and severe droughts during summertime due to increasing temperatures and seasonal variability in precipitation. Although the long-term climatological record doesn’t yet show any trends in drought frequency or severity from a national perspective, some evidence exists that more frequent and severe droughts have occurred recently in the western and southwestern U.S. Looking ahead, however, the expectation is that drought frequency and severity in Nebraska will increase—particularly during the summer months—because of the combination of increasing temperatures and the increased seasonal variability in precipitation that is likely to occur.
  • Snowpack: A major concern for Nebraska and other central Great Plains states is the current and continued large projected reduction in snowpack for the central and northern Rocky Mountains. Flows in the Platte and Missouri rivers during the summer depend on the slow release of water as the snowpack melts. These summer flows could be greatly reduced in coming years.

To address the implications of these observed and projected changes, we asked experts with knowledge of, and practical experience in, sectors important to Nebraska to comment. These sectors include: water resources, energy supply and use, agriculture, forests, human health, ecosystems, rural communities and urban systems. Their commentaries raise serious concerns about how projected changes in climate will affect Nebraska and provide a starting point for discussions about the actions we should take.

This report documents many key challenges Nebraska must confront as a result of climate change. However, embedded in each challenge is an opportunity. With this knowledge in hand, we can identify actions that must be implemented to avoid or reduce the deleterious effects of climate change in Nebraska. Action now is preferable—and more cost effective—than reaction later.

Understanding and Assessing Climate Change: Implications for Nebraska” is available online.

Don Wilhite is a DWFI fellow and climate science professor in UNL’s School of Natural Resources. He was the founding director of both UNL’s National Drought Mitigation Center and its International Drought Information Center.

Disclaimer: The Daugherty Water for Food Institute welcomes blog articles from guest contributors. Please note the comments shared by guests represent their own views and not necessarily those of DWFI, the University of Nebraska or any institutions with which DWFI may be affiliated.

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