Finding safe haven in the climate change future: The Great Plains

This Yahoo News series analyzes different regions around the country in terms of climate change risks that they face now and will experience in the years to come.

As the negative consequences of rising global temperatures due to humankind’s relentless burning of fossil fuels become more and more apparent in communities across the United States, anxiety over finding a place to live safe from the ravages of climate change has also been on the rise.

“Millions and likely tens of millions of Americans” will move because of climate through the end of the century, Jesse Keenan, an associate professor of real estate at Tulane University’s School of Architecture, told Yahoo News. “People move because of school districts, affordability, job opportunities. There are a lot of drivers, and I think it’s probably best to think about this as ‘climate is now one of those drivers.’”

The Buffalo Bayou is seen under a highway in Houston.
The Buffalo Bayou in Houston. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

In late October, a report by the United Nations concluded that average global temperatures are on track to warm by 2.1°C to 2.9°C by the year 2100. As a result, the world can expect a dramatic rise in chaotic, extreme weather events. In fact, that increase is already happening. In the 1980s, the U.S. was hit with a weather disaster totaling $1 billion in damages once every four months on average. Thanks to steadily rising temperatures, they now occur every three weeks, according to a draft report of the latest National Climate Assessment, and they aren’t limited to any particular geographical region.

To be sure, calculating climate risk depends on a dizzying number of factors, including luck, latitude, elevation, the upkeep of infrastructure, long-term climate patterns, the predictable behavior of the jet stream and how warming ocean waters will impact the frequency of El Niño-La Niña cycles.

“No place is immune from climate change impacts, certainly in the continental United States, and throughout the U.S. those impacts will be quite severe,” Keenan said. “They will be more severe in some places and less severe in other places. Certain places will be more moderate in terms of temperature and some places will be more extreme, but we all share the risk of the increase of extreme events.”

In this installment, we look at the low-lying, expansive, north-south strip of states in the center of the country.

The Great Plains

A vast, predominantly flat stretch in the center of the country that extends from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Plains includes Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

While the large overall area of the Great Plains translates into markedly different weather — with North Dakota enduring frigid winters and states like Oklahoma and Texas baking in the summer months — the region has been warming quickly in recent years.

North Dakota, where the average annual temperature is 41.1°F, has warmed by an average of 2.6°F since the turn of the 20th century, according to data provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Texas, where the average temperature is 65.8°F, has warmed by 1.5°F on average over that same period.

The bulk of that warming, we know, has occurred in recent decades because higher concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have further amplified the greenhouse effect, speeding up the rate of temperature rise. Short of a technological breakthrough, unless concerted action is taken to stop burning fossil fuels to slow emissions, scientists say, the world will keep getting hotter.

Tumbleweed rolls across a dried-out landscape in central California’s Kern County as trucks head south on a nearby highway.
Tumbleweed rolls across a dried-out landscape in central California’s Kern County. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

“The average annual Texas surface temperature in 2036 is expected to be 3.0°F warmer than the 1950-1999 average and 1.8°F warmer than the 1991-2020 average,” a 2021 report from the Texas state climatologist found. “The number of 100-degree days at typical stations is expected to nearly double by 2036 compared to 2001-2020, with a higher frequency of 100-degree days in urban areas.”

Texas, in fact, is home to all of the Great Plains’ top 10 worst-rated counties — Cameron, Galveston, Willacy, Kleberg, Refugio, Nueces, Pecos, Starr, Webb and Harris — in terms of overall climate change risks, according to information provided by data analytics firm the Rhodium Group and a 2020 analysis of counties in the lower 48 states published by ProPublica and the New York Times. And dozens of other Texas counties aren’t far behind on that list.

In no small part that’s because of two factors, the state’s latitude and its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico. The Rhodium rankings were based on six categories related to climate change: heat stress, the combination of heat and humidity (wet bulb), crop loss, sea level rise, very large fires and overall likely economic damages.

North Dakota’s Ward, Renville, Mountrail and Bottineau counties took the top four spots when it came to safest locations in the Great Plains for climate change risk, with the state also placing two more in the top 10 — Williams and Walsh counties. Montana’s Silver Bow, Glacier and Deer Lodge counties rated No. 5-No. 7 on that list, with Wyoming’s Uinta County ranking eighth-safest in the region.

Extremely low water levels of Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park in Moran, Wyo.
Colter Bay Marina in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming was closed for the summer due to the low water levels of Jackson Lake, seen here in August. (Amber Baesler/AP)

Summertime temperatures this year proved brutal for many states in the southern Great Plains, and drought conditions continued to worsen across the entire region.

On July 19, Oklahoma City set a new temperature record for that day, hitting 110°F during a heat wave that locked in triple-digit heat for more than a week. Yet all-time records, many of which were set in 1936 during the Dust Bowl years, were not surpassed.

Many climate deniers point to record high temperatures during the Dust Bowl years, which were amplified by poor farming practices, to try to show that global warming isn’t happening. If the records were set in the 1930s, the reasoning goes, then, by definition, the world is not warming.

That leaves out the fact that climate anomalies have continued to occur since humankind began pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, that the incidence of heat waves is increasing and that the country on average continues to experience fewer days of extreme cold. In Houston, for example, five of the six hottest Julys on record have occurred since 2009, while the city’s top 10 coolest Julys all happened before 1980, according to data from the National Weather Service.

Skeptics who argue that humankind cannot influence something as large as the Earth’s climate also fail to address the impact that discarding harmful farming practices has had in preventing the return of Dust Bowl conditions. Yet rising temperatures and the continued depletion of the aquifers that help irrigate the Great Plains threaten that progress.

A sprinkler is in use on farmland near Dodge City, Kansas.
A sprinkler near Dodge City, Kan., in 2012. (Kevin Murphy/Reuters)

“Right now we are seeing more dust storms as this drought worsens in what was formerly the Dust Bowl region,” UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain, who also consults for ClimateCheck, a company that provides climate change risk assessments on real estate nationwide, told Yahoo News. “Certainly nothing on the order of what we saw in the 1930s, but there is a severe, worsening drought there and there are some self-fulfilling feedback mechanisms whereby things start to get warm and dry, they dry out the soil, which begets more warmth and more dryness.”

As in other parts of the country, rising average temperatures in the Great Plains are wreaking havoc on the water cycle, specifically when it comes to sustaining water levels in the High Plains Aquifer. In the years to come, that could pose significant issues in the delivery of water for agriculture.

“In the northern portion of the Great Plains, rain can recharge the aquifer quickly. However, with climate change, precipitation in the winter and spring is projected to increasingly fall in the form of very heavy precipitation events, which can increase flooding and runoff that reduce water quality and cause soil erosion,” the EPA says on its website. “In the southern portion of the region, little recharge occurs, so declines in the aquifer’s water level are much greater. Climate change will worsen this situation by causing drier conditions and increasing the need for irrigation.”

While it is not entirely clear how climate change will impact precipitation trends across all of the Great Plains in the coming decades, there are warning signs in states like Montana, where the melting winter snowpack helps supply the region with water.

An empty dirt road amid the prairie on the Cheyenne River Reservation near Dupree, S.D.
A serious drought has made it difficult to tell the difference between the prairie and the dirt road on the Cheyenne River Reservation near Dupree, S.D. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

“Higher spring temperatures will also result in earlier melting of the snowpack, further decreasing water availability during the summer months,” the EPA says on its website.

More and more often, when it does rain across the Great Plains, it pours. Soil erosion, in turn, can set back the progress made to avert future Dust Bowls, and as evaporation rates rise in tandem with warmer temperatures, the threat of wildfires is also growing. Former Kansas State climatologist Mary Knapp has long warned that while agricultural advances have kept a 1930s disaster from recurring, climate change could yet plunge the Great Plains back into the danger zone.

“I’ve been saying that for years,” Knapp told the Mercury newspaper in Manhattan, Kan., in 2021. “The thought is, with modern agricultural and conservation techniques, that we would preclude the scenario that plagued the Dust Bowl, but there are other factors that can remove vegetation.”

Perhaps the surest climate change bet for the Great Plains is that warmer average temperatures will play out differently across a large region already accustomed to dramatic weather fluctuations. Some parts will have to deal with an uptick in what is known as the “wet bulb” effect, the potentially fatal combination of hot temperatures and high humidity that conspire to prevent the body from being able to cool itself down through the evaporation of sweat. That metric was one of the factors that explains why a place like Galveston County in Texas rated so poorly on the Rhodium analysis.

Utility poles lead to downtown Dallas.
A heat advisory was issued in Dallas in July due to scorching weather. (Shelby Tauber/Reuters)

But climate change has also already disrupted the water cycle in other dangerous ways.

“In late August 2017, Hurricane Harvey ravaged the Houston area with 1 trillion gallons of rain, enough to run Niagara Falls for 15 days. No other big American city has withstood such a natural disaster in modern times,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner wrote in the introduction to the city’s 2020 plan on how to use billions in taxpayer funds to harden the city against the changing climate.

Harvey, which racked up $125 billion in damages and killed 107 people, and 2019’s Tropical Storm Imelda, which resulted in another $5 billion in damages and killed six, were both slow-moving systems that unloaded massive amounts of rain from an oversaturated atmosphere. In close succession, they shined a light on Houston’s vulnerability to flooding, but that’s not the only risk the city faces from rising global temperatures.

“Hurricanes, tropical storms, and flooding are not the only threats that we face. Houston is hot — and our heat is increasing due to climate change and the urban heat island effect,” Turner wrote.

Even though studies have shown that climate change is making tropical cyclones wetter, windier, slower and able to ramp up quicker than in a pre-climate-change world, persuading residents and elected officials to prepare for those risks is easier after they’ve witnessed the impacts firsthand.

People make their way down flooded Telephone Road in Houston in August 2017.
People make their way down flooded Telephone Road in Houston in August 2017 in the wake of Tropical Storm Harvey. (Thomas Shea/AFP via Getty Images)

“If, for a location, the policy becomes [investing in] sea walls and sewage and drainage and stronger construction, better infrastructure and so forth, then places may be forecast to retain value and people may stay,” Parag Khanna, the founder and CEO of Climate Alpha, a company that helps investors quantify climate change risks to real estate, told Yahoo News.

“You can’t on the one hand continue to have the American dream rest on your property values going up, and on the other hand have people increasingly in survival society, being forced to rebuild time and again after disasters. Those two things are not compatible,” he added.

To be sure, hardening infrastructure from the daunting number of threats posed by climate change is quite expensive, but a reluctance to prepare can prove to be even more so.

In February 2021, a polar vortex descended on Texas, a state that years earlier had moved to deregulate its energy sector. The surging demand for electricity left more than 4.5 million homes and businesses without power. The storm essentially brought North Dakota-like winter conditions to the Lone Star State for days on end, resulting in the deaths of more than 170 people and more than $20 billion in damages, costing the state’s economy between $80 billion and $130 billion, according to the Dallas Federal Reserve.

As counterintuitive as it may sound, studies have since linked the severe winter outbreak to climate change. Thanks to the fact that the Arctic is warming faster than any other region on Earth, those higher temperatures have been shown to disrupt the behavior of polar vortexes, weakening them so that they wander south over the continental U.S.

That’s exactly what happened this week, when another high pressure ridge in Alaska sent another wave of cold arctic air over much of the country.

While the big picture is that the last eight years have been the warmest in recorded history, that warming will usher in an era of what scientists call “climate chaos,” in which a variety of new risks will present themselves. So, while states like Oklahoma and Texas have begun rolling out plans to help them endure hotter temperatures born of climate change, they also face a choice about how much to spend to winterize the electrical grid. Estimates for upgrading it so as to withstand a future polar vortex are anywhere between $5 billion and $20 billion, Texas Monthly reported.