Environment, Education, Energy: Policy to People

Drier, Hotter, More Extreme Weather: How Climate Change is Already Affecting Oklahoma

A supercell near Courtney, Okla., in April 2014.

ravedelay / Flickr

A supercell near Courtney, Okla., in April 2014.

A new federal report bluntly warns that every region of the United States is already observing climate change-related effects to the environment and economy.

In Oklahoma and other Great Plains states, climate change from carbon emissions is changing crop growth cycles, increasing energy and water demand, altering rainfall patterns and leading to more frequent extreme weather and climate events, the report concludes.

The magnitude of those changes is expected to increase throughout Oklahoma’s region, according to the report. And researchers say current planning efforts to respond and adapt to climate change are “inadequate.”

More than 300 experts contributed to the National Climate Assessment, which took three years to compile and was reviewed by a panel of the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences.

Explaining the report’s findings on a conference call with reporters, Katharine Hayhoe, an associate professor at Texas Tech University and director of the school’s Climate Science Center, said climate change is a “present reality” for Oklahoma and its seven regional neighbors.

“It’s no longer an issue that’s distant in time and space that matters only to the polar bears in the arctic or to our children, or their children,” she says. “It’s affecting us today. It’s affecting Americans across the country, it’s affecting people around the world, and it is affecting us here in the Great Plains.”

The full report is available here, but the most pertinent analysis to Oklahoma is contained in the Great Plains chapter, which is embedded above. Eight scientists contributed to this chapter, including two from the University of Oklahoma.

Here are the bullet points for climate change effects in the Great Plains:

1. Greater Water, Energy and Land Use

Water, energy and land are inseparable, a theme that has emerged in previous reporting here at StateImpact. Many states in the region — Oklahoma, Texas, North Dakota and Wyoming — are big oil, natural gas and coal producers. But 80 percent of the land in the region is still used for agriculture, according to the report. The demands of energy and agriculture, combined with drought, are increasing competition for water.

The trend toward more dry days and higher temperatures across the south will increase evaporation, decrease water supplies, reduce electricity trans- mission capacity, and increase cooling demands. These changes will add stress to limited water resources and affect management choices related to irrigation, municipal use, and energy generation.

2. Crops and Livestock Are Susceptible

Crops are adapting to warmer temperatures and different rainfall patterns, which affects productivity. A possible benefit could be a longer growing season in some Great Plains states, but warmer winters mean more pests and invasive species, the report concludes. And more intense rainfall events lead to more erosion and nutrient runoff. In the south and central plains states like Oklahoma, aquifer depletion could limit agriculture:

Holding other aspects of production constant, the climate impacts of shifting from irrigated to dryland agriculture would reduce crop yields by about a factor of two. Under these climate-induced changes, adaptation of agricultural practices will be needed, however, there may be constraints on social-ecological adaptive capacity to make these adjustments

3. This Land is Getting Fragmented

In Oklahoma, the wind and oil boom in western and northwestern Oklahoma have helped fragment the landscape. This, combined with warmer temperatures and drought, has had a big impact on wildlife like the Lesser Prairie Chicken, which goes on the federal threatened species list on May 12.

Oklahoma and other states have developed conservation plans for grasslands and prairie wildlife, but the report forecasts long-term difficulty.

… climate change will complicate current conservation efforts as land fragmentation continues to reduce habitat connectivity.

4. Some People Face a Greater Risk

The report points out the geographic, economic and cultural diversity of the people who live in the Great Plains, but warns that many communities — particularly Native Americans, those in remote or sparsely populated areas, or those with language barriers or limited access to services — face a particular challenge in responding to climate extremes.

Populations such as the elderly, low-income, and non-native English speakers face heightened climate vulnerability. Public health resources, basic infrastructure, adequate housing, and effective communication systems are often lacking in communities that are geographically, politically, and economically isolated. Elderly people are more vulnerable to extreme heat, especially in warmer cities and communities with minimal air conditioning or sub-standard housing. Language barriers for Hispanics may impede their ability to plan for, adapt to, and respond to climate-related risks.

Native Americans face unique climate challenges, too:

While tribal communities have adapted to climate change for centuries, they are now constrained by physical and political boundaries. Traditional ecosystems and native resources no longer provide the support they used to. Tribal members have reported the decline or disappearance of culturally important animal species, changes in the timing of cultural ceremonies due to earlier onset of spring, and the inability to locate certain types of ceremonial wild plants.

5. Our Governments’ Plan is Inadequate

Water wars in Southern Plains states — that’s Oklahoma — are expected to strain resources in “already stressed” systems, which will likely impact agriculture and energy production, and how the sub-region’s animals, plants and people thrive, the report’s researchers conclude.

State, local and tribal planning efforts to adapt and plan “do not match the magnitude of the expected changes,” according to the report:

Although there is tremendous adaptive potential among the diverse communities of the Great Plains, many local government officials do not yet recognize climate change as a problem that requires proactive planning.60,65 Positive steps toward greater community resilience have been achieved through local and regional collaboration and increased two-way communication between scientists and local decision-makers

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership among Oklahoma’s public radio stations and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.


  • Stephen Willis

    Local and global climate change cannot be separated. This is far to critical an issue to continue to allow it to be politicized by either of the two major political parties. Drought in American Southwest goes beyond borders, beyond governments, and beyond party affiliation. Land and water conservation are non-partisan issues. They impact us all.

  • http://www.michaelblieden.com Blieden

    Dear Senator James Inhofe,

    I believe that you represent the views of half a million Oklahomans who voted for you. From what I can tell you have always been outspoken in your convictions, and your supporters know who they have elected and why. Despite the fact that I disagree with your public statements on climate change, your constituents’ rights to accurate representation is something I cherish.

    I am writing to implore you, however, to keep in mind the silent constituency of voters like me who live in distant places, who are powerless to vote for you or against you. I breathe the same air, and enjoy the same sun. I also have access to the same research and the same holy texts as you, yet I have come to a starkly different conclusion on the issue of climate change and our environment. I have read your statements and much, much more. I’ve come to believe that climate change is direct, existential threat to me and those I love. It’s a threat to our country and others. I believe it’s just as grave of a threat to the health and livelihood of the people who voted for you.

    In your quiet moments, with only your conscience to guide you, please think of the millions and millions of people, numbers which dwarf even the generous majority of Oklahoma voters who put you in office, who live and die by your policies. No business has a right to dump CO2 into the environment without factoring the cost of my health. The EPA, which you strive to diminish, is in fact working in my best interest. From what I can tell, you are advocating policies that threaten my well being, my hopes for the future, and the viability of life on earth.

    No excuses, no donation, no religious faith, no voter mandate will alter the slow and inexorable suffering we face with the continued buildup of greenhouse gasses. As a responsible member of the body which governs this powerful country you have a duty which goes far beyond Oklahoma.

    • Shane Mirkovich

      What the heck is all that for? I didnt even read past the first Paragraph. Just want to say that you wasted your time writing all that. Inhofe is in the pocket of oil and natural gas industry, law firms, and insurance. They finance his elections. Unless you have millions of dollars dangling on strings from your sport coat, you have better luck talking to a tree than Inhofe.

      • Reg

        Sadly – there are people like Jim Inhofe who value the short term payments of the oil & gas industry over the ability for his grandchildren to live a happy, healthy life (and mine, yours and everyone else’s). It seems like the majority of climate warming skeptics all have somehow been influenced by oil & gas payments – i.e. – our US politicians – who need big bucks to run election campaigns. And where do these guys go? To those who have the funds….. It is the same game the cigarette industry used to play – bait & switch – just give the mass a reason to doubt the facts. Oil & Gas has used the same techniques. This time its not affecting the life of one who makes a decision not to quit – but “possibly” the long term survive-ability of the entire human race. If we want to step up one more level – to the bigger issue – we have too many people living on this planet -and- we consume too much of the planets resources. These are the real issues. Global Warming is simply a symptom.

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