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

Executive Summary

In the Northern Great Plains, the timing and quantity of both precipitation and runoff have important consequences for water supplies, agricultural activities, and energy production. Overall, climate projections suggest that the number of heavy precipitation events (events with greater than 1 inch per day of rainfall) is projected to increase. Moving forward, the magnitude of year-to-year variability overshadows the small projected average decrease in streamflow. Changes in extreme events are likely to overwhelm average changes in both the eastern and western regions of the Northern Great Plains. Major flooding across the basin in 2011 was followed by severe drought in 2012, representing new and unprecedented variability that is likely to become more common in a warmer world.

The Northern Great Plains region plays a critical role in national food security. Among other anticipated changes, projected warmer and generally wetter conditions with elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are expected to increase the abundance and competitive ability of weeds and invasive species,1,2 increase livestock production and efficiency of production,3 and result in longer growing seasons at mid- and high latitudes.4,5 Net primary productivity, including crop yields6 and forage production,7,8 is also likely to increase, although an increasing number of extreme temperature events during critical pollination and grain fill periods is likely to reduce crop yields.9

Ecosystems across the Northern Great Plains provide recreational opportunities and other valuable goods and services that are ingrained in the region’s cultures. Higher temperatures, reduced snow cover, and more variable precipitation will make it increasingly challenging to manage the region’s valuable wetlands, rivers, and snow-dependent ecosystems. In the mountains of western Wyoming and western Montana, the fraction of total water in precipitation that falls as snow is expected to decline by 25% to 40% by 2100 under a higher scenario (RCP8.5),10 which would negatively affect the region’s winter recreation industry.11 At lower-elevation areas of the Northern Great Plains, climate-induced land-use changes in agriculture can have cascading effects on closely entwined natural ecosystems, such as wetlands,12 and the diverse species and recreational opportunities they support.

Energy resources in the Northern Great Plains include abundant crude oil, natural gas, coal, wind, and stored water, and to a lesser extent, corn-based ethanol, solar energy, and uranium. The infrastructure associated with the extraction, distribution, and energy produced from these resources is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Railroads and pipelines are vulnerable to damage or disruption from increasing heavy precipitation events and associated flooding and erosion.13 Declining water availability in the summer would likely increase costs for oil production operations, which require freshwater resources.13 These cost increases will either lead to lower production or be passed on to consumers. Finally, higher maximum temperatures, longer and more severe heat waves, and higher overnight lows are expected to increase electricity demand for cooling in the summer, further stressing the power grid.13

Indigenous peoples in the region are observing changes to climate, many of which are impacting livelihoods as well as traditional subsistence and wild foods, wildlife, plants and water for ceremonies, medicines, and health and well-being.14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22,23,24,25,26 Because some tribes and Indigenous peoples are among those in the region with the highest rates of poverty and unemployment, and because many are still directly reliant on natural resources, they are among the most at risk to climate change (e.g., Gamble et al. 2016, Cozzetto et al. 2013, Espey et al. 2014, Wong et al. 2014, Kornfeld 2016, Paul and Caplins 2016, Maynard 2014, USGCRP 201718,24,25,27,28,29,30,31).


Projected Changes in Very Hot Days, Cool Days, and Heavy Precipitation

Projected changes are shown for (top) the annual number of very hot days (days with maximum temperatures above 90°F, an indicator of crop stress and impacts on human health), (middle) the annual number of cool days (days with minimum temperatures below 28°F, an indicator of damaging frost), and (bottom) heavy precipitation events (the annual number of days with greater than 1 inch of rainfall; areas in white do not normally experience more than 1 inch of rainfall in a single day). Projections are shown for the middle of the 21st century (2036–2065) as compared to the 1976–2005 average under the lower and higher scenarios (RCP4.5 and RCP8.5). From Figure 22.2 (Sources: NOAA NCEI and CICS-NC).

Northern Great Plains Tribal Lands

The map outlines reservation and off-reservation tribal lands in the Northern Great Plains, which shows where the 27 federally recognized tribes have a significant portion of lands throughout the region. Information on Indigenous peoples’ climate projects within the Northern Great Plains is described in Chapter 15: Tribes and Indigenous Peoples. From Figure 22.7 (Sources: created by North Central Climate Science Center [2017] with data from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Colorado State University, and USGS National Map).

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