Experts: Climate change report illustrates Great Plains concerns

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Farm Forum

A government report released last week flags a number of concerns for growers and residents in the Great Plains, but one local climatologist doesn’t think the latest climate change outlook is all doom and gloom.

On the heels of the Obama administration’s release on May 6 of the massive National Climate Assessment report, South Dakota State University Extension climate field specialist Laura Edwards said the findings offer a warning of hardships to come, but also an opportunity to implement new practices, which could be beneficial to agriculture.

“The big thing to take away from this report, in my opinion, is that climate change is real and it’s happening,” Edwards said. “Whether you think it’s caused by humans or not, we’re seeing the effects of a changing climate right now. A lot of the news about climate change has been negative, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case in our part of the country. There are some opportunities that are out there, such as an extended frost-free season, which could potentially increase farmer yields.”

Implementing change

Put together by a team of more than 300 climate and experts over a three-year period, the report focuses on climate change effects in the U.S. while breaking the country down into six regions. For the Great Plains region — which includes South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Montana and three other states — the reports states that rising temperatures coupled with sporadic and extreme rainfall events will require new agricultural and livestock practices.

Some of the techniques — many of which are already in play in some areas — include tile drainage (the removal of subsurface water), no-till farming (which can combat soil erosion), more frequent crop rotation and providing waterway buffer zones, Edwards said.

“We’ve already seen evidence of a changing climate here in South Dakota,” Edwards said. “We’ve already seen the wetter trend and the warming temperatures, and those impacts are starting to affect South Dakota and the northeastern part of the state. If you were to ask farmers today, most will tell you that there have been some changes and some variability lately.”

In a statement released on May 7, SDSU Extension state climatologist Dennis Todey also pointed out the concern that warmer temperatures and increased rainfall could change weed and pest pressures in agriculture and could potentially put extra stress on livestock.

A political issue?

While the scientific community is largely in agreement that climate change is real and changes need to be made to combat its effects, others continue to view the issue as political. Republicans downplayed the report last week in Washington with some calling it a manufactured distraction by the Obama administration.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., last week was quoted by The Huffington Post as stating that instead of “taking the country in a different direction,” Obama was “meeting with meteorologists.”

The head of the South Dakota chapter of the Sierra Club, disagreed on May 7, stating his desire to move the climate change debate out of the political arena.

“The one thing you learn from this report is that there are fewer and fewer people out there who don’t believe what’s happening,” said Dana Loseke, the organization’s volunteer executive director. “If you’re not taking an intelligent look at this, as more and more scientists embrace the fact that there have been some human-induced changes to our climate, I think you ignore what’s happening at your own peril. I think the farmers are ahead of even some of the leaders in their organizations as recognizing some of the things they need to do.”

Despite some of the dire predictions in the report, Loseke agreed with Edwards and Todey, who pointed out that the frost-free season in some areas is about 10 days longer than it was 50 to 100 years ago, in stating that a longer growing season in the Great Plains could be viewed as one positive for farmers.

“There will be more of a demand for water — there’s no question about that,” Loseke said. “We will have a longer growing season; that’s a positive. At the same time, a longer growing season and warmer temperatures could lead to more bugs that survive winters. There are adjustments being made by farmers, and there will have to be more adjustments if we’re going to have an agricultural economy here.”

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