How climate change could affect Nebraska

By Bailey Schulz, NewsNetNebraska

On a warm October morning, Gregg Fujan climbed into his Case IH 6130 tractor and started driving towards the sunrise on his corn field near Prague, Nebraska,  harvesting rows of golden stalks that stretched as far as the eye can see.

Fujan grew up right next to the plot of land and had been tending to the area for 33 years. He loves everything about the job: being outside, facing a new challenge every day and living somewhere he can look outside and see for miles. It’s “impressive stuff,” he said.

Fujan has seen some strange weather in recent years, including an increase in storm intensity compared to 30 years ago and more extremes with rainy and dry periods. But this year’s harvest will be a new record for Fujan. That may be part of the reason why he said he doesn’t “buy into the whole climate change hysteria.”

“I think things ebb and flow and change, it’s just what happens in the world,” Fujan said. “Change is a natural occurrence.”

While there are still a number of people who have doubts about the science behind climate change, a growing number of people believe climate change is happening and could have negative impacts on the planet — including agricultural production in Nebraska.

Anne Meis, a farmer and former math and science teacher from Elgin, Nebraska, said she has her concerns about the future climate. 

“I think it’s something where if you look at it and you look at the historical data collected by climatologists, I think evidence shows that there is an increase in our temperature patterns on earth,” she said.

Doubts about climate change

Tyler Williams, a cropping systems extension educator at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said a majority of the farmers he works with have noticed changes in the climate in Nebraska, and believe in global warming. But he said that doesn’t mean it’s a primary concern for them.

“Generally, it’s not the first thing on their mind,” he said. “It’s the rain that’s happening today … they’re basically on two-year plans.”

While climate change has become a more common belief among the general population, Fujan is far from the only one who has his doubts. One study from Yale found that only 60 percent of Americans are worried about global warming.

According to Fujan, climate change is more of a political discussion than a scientific debate in rural Nebraska.

Image of Gregg Fujan’s cornfield near Prague, Nebraska.

“This is a conservative area here, most of rural Nebraska is” Fujan said. “If I went to (Prague) tomorrow morning and started making comments about climate change, most guys would roll their eyes.”

But according to many scientists in the Lincoln community, the effects of climate change are already in progress.

“If you look closely at the records, you can see that there has been some change,” said Charles Wortmann, an agronomist professor at UNL. “The records are showing, not with a high degree of certainty, but more frequent occurrence of extreme events. More often the degree goes above 105 degrees in the summertime, or that we get extreme rainfall events.”

Predictions

According to Wortmann, “all indications” show that climate change is happening and will worsen in the future.

While 97 percent of actively-publishing climate scientists say that climate change is happening and is likely due to human activities, it’s harder to find a large percentage of academics who agree on how it will affect Nebraska. Wortmann said many predictions say its effects aren’t as severe for Nebraska, but many still worry that the state will see more extreme weather variations.

“Extreme heat events, extreme dryness events, extreme wet events — that’s more difficult to adapt to,” Wartmann said.

Even so, Allen Dutcher, an extension agricultural climatologist at UNL, said predictions will never be fully accurate.

“Predicting global climate change, it’s nothing but a guess as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “We have a lot of uncertainty.”

Even models predicting Nebraska’s weather in years to come tend to give different results. According to Brian Wardlow, a geography and spatial science mission area leader at UNL, scientists will need 50 to 100 more years of data to truly see the impact and rate of climate change.

Still, scientists say that these changes in weather — whatever they may be — could potentially affect the growth of agriculture in Nebraska. Wortmann said the while predictions for Nebraska aren’t as severe as other parts of the United States, he expects average temperatures to increase by 5 to 10 degrees by the end of the century. Other predictions say average rainfall will see a 5 to 10 percent change, with wetter winters and springs and drier summers and falls.

Impact on agriculture

And these changes could have an impact on crop production. Wortmann said extreme rain patterns could lead to more erosion, and longer dry periods could mean irrigations systems would have trouble providing enough water. Additionally, Williams said an increased average temperature could hurt crop production.

“If it’s hot, we’re going to evaporate a lot more water,” he said. “Our crops will stress, they may burn up. Our pastures may burn up … if we keep our current practices the same, I think it would decrease our production … I just don’t know if our irrigation could stand up.”

Wortmann said farmers can help reduce negative impacts on the environment by reducing emissions, shifting weed management and creating more tolerant crops

Taking action

Wardlow said many states are already looking at taking on a proactive stance on climate change, especially when faced with the possibility of more droughts.

“If you meet with someone with the national drought mitigation center, they’re definitely doing planning and policy,” he said. “A lot of states are beginning to look at proactive management as well in relationship to drought and the dry side to the equation for climate change. You’re seeing that with water resource managers, for example, on how to conserve or maximize the use of water.”

Willimas said farmers can do their part to help the environment as well. But he said the first step is to acknowledge the problem.

“Farmers should be more concerned,” Williams said. “It’s in the best interest for farming to take it and run with it and be advocates for reducing our impact on the environment. There’s not a group of people that are more reliant on the environment than farmers.”

For Meis, she hopes that farmers and Nebraskans across the state take on a “realistic” approach to climate change, a challenge she worries future generations will have to face in years to come.

“I think these will be issues (my child) will face, whether it’s a mandate from above that requires more green energy or whether it is just the way of the future,” she said. “We have to be … looking into the future and being proactive about being smart about the way we use energy.”

 

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