The National Climate Assessment contains a simple message for western South Dakota: Expect increasing challenges from greater variability, uncertainty and severity — in the form of drought, heat waves, hail damage, deluges.
The effects of climate change will become undeniable within a few decades as winter snow pack disappears, snowmobiling and ski seasons grow shorter, and trout disappear from warming streams, the report predicts. The forest fire season will grow longer, more forests will burn, large and damaging hail will become more frequent, and flooding will wash out roads and infrastructure.
The takeaway message from the report’s chapter dedicated to the Northern Great Plains: Life has always been challenging here, due to uncertainty over water. Climate change will increase the uncertainty — to a somewhat unknown degree.
The Lakota who preceded us here knew it well: Mni wiconi — water is life. Warmer days and uncertainty over water will have repercussions for farming, ranching, tourism, recreation and forests — just about everything associated with the good life in the Black Hills. For farmers, new practices and changing patterns offer opportunities, but the past will become increasingly meaningless as a predictor of the future. Resource management will involve greater risks, and adaptation will be necessary.
Despite the overall negative message, the bureaucratic report fails miserably as a scary piece of apocalyptic prophecy. It reads instead like a synthesis of numerous academic studies and observed historical trends.
While the future will be more challenging, the potential interaction of so many variables makes it impossible to determine with precision how much more challenging. For instance, while the increase in hot days will affect plant growth, higher concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide will improve plant growth efficiency, with expectations of net harm in many areas. In another example, the report looks at how changing markets and increasing rainfall have already shifted the corn crop north. Grasslands are currently being converted to cropland at a rate unseen since the 1930s.
On balance, the report is much like one you may have carried home from elementary school and hid from your mom. Listen up, youngster, came the message: Your entire future depends on how you respond today. You can continue pretending life won’t catch up to you, or you can prepare for what’s ahead. It can be hard now or it can be even harder then. It makes no nevermind to me.
For the record: The predictions for western South Dakota by mid-century call for 20-30 additional days above 90 degrees each year. It’s predicted there will be 25 to 35 fewer days below 28 degrees (hard frost), compared with the historical average. Extreme cold, blizzards and early frost will still afflict us, but warming will mark the overall trend. The changes have implications for weeds, pests and growing seasons.
The report predicts little change in total rainfall, but it stresses changes in the magnitude and variability of storms and wet-and-dry seasons will greatly overshadow the small projected decrease in average stream flows. With less winter snowpack and increased stream evaporation, water management will become more challenging, with implications for storm sewers, reservoirs, energy transmission lines and transportation systems.
The better we prepare for climate change, the better we can withstand change and profit from it.
First, we can help mitigate the change occurring across the planet. It’s like buying insurance. You pay a little now to avoid potential catastrophic losses later.
The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act recently introduced in the U.S. House and backed by the Citizens' Climate Lobby is a reasonable and measured step toward that protection. The plan seeks to make cleaner fuels more economically competitive by imposing fees on fossil fuels. Consumers would receive the dividends from fees to protect them from rising energy prices.
Meanwhile, we should invest more in data collection and studies that could help our region maintain the upper hand in the face of rising challenges. We may not need to outrun the bear but only outrun Nebraska.
Panic is not a strategy but neither is denial. The report uses batteries of interlocking studies to present us with the information necessary to better address our future. Ignoring it is to forgo opportunity.