Historically, the 100th meridian — which bisects Nebraska into two nearly even halves — has designated where the West begins.
Beyond just being a line on a map, though, it represents the shift between the more temperate eastern half of the state in the Great Plains and the more arid western half, which begins the transition to the intermountain West. Over the last 151 years, Nebraska’s population and economy have shaken out largely in line with those two distinct climates.
A pair of recent studies, however, suggests that warming temperatures threaten to push that dividing line farther east — a shift that could have devastating effects on Nebraska’s agriculture industry and, accordingly, the state economy as a whole.
One of those studies, published by researchers at Columbia University in New York, posits the geography and climate of the 100th meridian are slowly shifting toward the 98th meridian. Moving by just those two degrees would affect a quarter of the state, including the Tri-City hub of central Nebraska, as the line would creep roughly 100 miles from Cozad to Aurora.
That swath of Nebraska boasts some of its most productive cropland. But if the trend continues as the Columbia research suggests it could, the state economy could suffer mightily.
After all, more than 90 percent of Nebraska’s land area is used for agriculture. Lack of access to groundwater and drier conditions has made grains that thrive from dry land farming, such as wheat, the dominant crops. Other arid ground, such as in the Sandhills, is used for grazing cattle.
Those uses obviously work well in that land area. But the techniques required for success demand more land and larger operations — and fewer farmers, as indicated by the wave of rural depopulation that’s most acute in western Nebraska.
Spreading such trends across more of the state would further stress an agriculturally driven economy already struggling with low commodity prices and property tax growth that far outstrips income growth — both of which could be exacerbated, should this continue.
As the average global temperature inches up, much of the attention has focused on rising sea levels. But even Nebraska, the only triply landlocked state, isn’t immune from these consequences — with mountains of research from University of Nebraska-Lincoln climatologists highlighting concerns about more frequent droughts and severe storms as a result.
UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green correctly noted the balance while addressing a Nebraska Press Association luncheon Friday: “As the agricultural economy goes, so does Nebraska.”
The future holds plenty of uncertainty for the state’s leading industry, and conditions for the production of crops and livestock are chief among them. Farmers and ranchers must be prepared for these shifts that will have ripples far beyond the fields and pastures of Nebraska.