Federal Coordinating Lead Author:
Doug Kluck, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Chapter Lead:
Richard T. Conant, Colorado State University
Chapter Authors:
Mark Anderson, U.S. Geological Survey
Andrew Badger, University of Colorado
Barbara Mayes Boustead, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Justin Derner, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Laura Farris, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Michael Hayes, University of Nebraska
Ben Livneh, University of Colorado
Shannon McNeeley, North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center and Colorado State University
Dannele Peck, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Martha Shulski, University of Nebraska
Valerie Small, University of Arizona
Review Editor:
Kirsten de Beurs, University of Oklahoma
USGCRP Coordinators:
Allyza Lustig, Program Coordinator
Kristin Lewis, Senior Scientist

Northern Great Plains

The Northern Great Plains has three distinct regional geographic features associated with a strong east-to-west gradient of decreasing precipitation and a stark rise in elevation at the montane western boundary. The eastern edge of the region includes a humid-continental climate and the Red River Valley, where the capacity to store water is often exceeded, leading to extensive flooding. A large swath of the central Northern Great Plains falls within the Upper Missouri River Basin. Much of this basin is arid to semiarid, and because temperatures and rates of evapotranspiration (the evaporation of water from the soil and transpiration from plants) are so high, only 9% of precipitation ultimately reaches the Missouri River as runoff. For comparison, other basins in the United States yield more than 40% runoff. In the mountainous far western part of the region, including central and western Wyoming and Montana, water dynamics are driven by large seasonal snowpack that accumulates in winter and early spring and provides critical resources for non-montane areas through runoff during the warm season.


Figure 22.1: Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Across the Northern Great Plains

Click dots on the map for examples.


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Figure 22.1: The Northern Great Plains exhibits a high amount of geographical, ecological, and climatological variability, in part because of the dramatic elevation change across the region. The impacts of climate change throughout the Northern Great Plains include changes in flooding and drought, rising temperatures, and the spread of invasive species. Ranchers, tribal communities, universities, government institutions, and other stakeholders from across the region have taken action to confront these challenges. Photo credits: 1) Justin Derner, USDA Agricultural Research Service, 2) Kenton Rowe Photography, 3) Kurrie Jo Small, 4) Eugene Wilson (CC BY-NC 2.0), 5) Jacob Byk, 6) Benjamin Rashford, 7) Chris Carparelli, 8) Mariah Lundgren, University of Nebraska Platte Basin Timelapse Project.

These intraregional gradients in precipitation, temperature, and water availability drive east–west differences in land use and climate. The eastern portion of the region is characterized by rainfed row crop agriculture and is often subject to flooding. For example, Devils Lake in North Dakota is a closed basin, meaning that it has no natural outflows. The basin is often so full that it is prone to flooding the communities around it. Separately, the irrigated cropland and grazing lands in the central portion of the Northern Great Plains are critical for U.S. livestock production, yet the arid to semiarid climate is highly variable from year to year, which makes it difficult to manage agriculture, recreation, and cultural resources. The western portion of the region is devoted primarily to native ecosystems used for grazing and recreation, but dryland cropping is also important, and forestry is important in the far-western edge of the region. Coal, oil, and natural gas are produced throughout the Northern Great Plains.

The highly variable climate of the Northern Great Plains poses challenges for the sustainable use of water, land, and energy resources by competing urban, suburban, rural, and tribal populations. Climate change is expected to exacerbate those challenges, which include 1) effectively managing both overabundant and scarce water resources, 2) supporting adaptation of sustainable agricultural systems, 3) fostering conservation of ecosystems and cultural and recreational amenities, 4) minimizing risk to energy infrastructure that is vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather events, and 5) mitigating climate impacts to vulnerable populations.

Diverse land uses across the region are overlain with a quilt work of private, state, federal, tribal, and other land ownership. Many of these institutions foster adaptation to existing climatic variability (Figure 22.1). For example, the Missouri Headwaters Drought Resilience Demonstration Project was launched in July 2014 to demonstrate how federal, state, and local stakeholders can work together to build long-term drought resilience. The project leverages federal and state resources and engages communities in the development and implementation of local watershed drought resilience plans and activities. Led by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, more than 10 federal agencies, 20 watershed groups, and 14 nongovernmental organizations are contributing to the project (see Missouri Headwaters Drought Resilience Demonstration Project 201532). It is a replicable model that is producing concrete, on-the-ground results, including tools for drought monitoring, assessment, and forecasting. In another example, Nebraska completed a statewide climate change assessment report in 2014.33 Officials were then able to use this report to convene eight sector-based roundtable discussions in 2015, engaging more than 350 people, to identify a suite of key issues, strategies, and next steps to help develop a statewide climate change action plan.34

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