Climate Change in Nebraska Requires Planning for the Future of Agriculture, Experts say

Nebraska is in the western cornbelt and in a marginal rainfall area to begin with, John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, told the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee on Tuesday.

“A little change in not only the amount but the timing of moisture has huge, huge consequences both on grain production but also livestock,” he said.

Hansen and climate specialists were testifying on a bill (LB583), introduced by Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm, that would beef up the state’s Climate Assessment Response Committee’s membership, reporting and communication duties to better prepare for changes.

The country is in the worst national drought in 50 years, and the past year was the warmest and driest ever in Nebraska, they said.

“We’re sitting here with virtually no subsoil moisture. We couldn’t possibly be more vulnerable as we go into this next growing season,” Hansen said.

Not dealing with the changes and volatility is not a prudent path forward, he said.

Haar’s bill would add a member of the High Plains Regional Climate Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to the Climate Assessment Response Committee. It would require the committee to report to the governor the impacts of climate change on Nebraska and how to prepare for it, and facilitate communication to address climate change impacts and response strategies.

Haar told the committee 34,000 daily record highs were set last year at weather stations across the country. The country also had the second most weather extremes on record, behind 1998.

“We need to start considering how to adapt to the impacts of the changes that are occurring and work diligently to ensure that we do not make the problems even worse,” he said.

Clint Rowe, professor in UNL’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, said the state can no longer afford to debate if human-induced climate changes are happening. They are.

In September, record low amounts of sea ice were reported, he said.

“We’re loading the dice toward more extremes,” he said.

The 2012 drought was an eye opener, said Michael Hayes, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center and a member of the Climate Assessment  Response Committee. The warm and dry weather beat out the dust bowl years of the 1930s.

Across the country, economic losses from the drought are estimated between $35 billion and $77 billion.

While scientists for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have said the drought falls within the context of natural climate variability, he said, the heat combined with the dryness in 2012 gives a glimpse of what future climate extremes might look like in Nebraska. And all climate models indicate increased temperature in the future.

Hansen said that although Nebraska has always been a state of weather extremes, it seems the volatility is increasing.

“We need to develop the tools we need to manage that volatility,” he said.

How does the state use less water? How does it store water more efficiently? How does it change its cropping patterns? How can it get more use out of the moisture it has?

One reliable study says Nebraska will be too far south to grow corn by 2050.

“Whether it’s 2050 or whether it’s 2080, whenever it is, it behooves us to be thinking about what it is that we do to develop appropriate kinds of crops and strategies to deal with the kind of weather that we’re getting,” he said.