Kentucky 2050 Forecast

This is Dr. Emily Schoerning with AR, and I’d like to say hello to all our friends in Kentucky.  Now, just to start off, you ought to know coming out of the gate that this is a state looking at particularly high levels of change.  And you’d think that would mean the state would be getting some attention, some help for people to get ready.  But the federal resources I use, while they mentioned California almost 500 times, Kentucky got a grand total of three citations.  So we’re going to pull some things together here ourselves, figure out more about the challenges and opportunities this high level of predicted change indicates.    

The first thing we’ll do is check out the USDA’s predictions.  We’ll look at the heat map first, check it out under the RCP 4.5 scenario.  Unfortunately, even under that moderate reduced emissions scenario, the heatup is looking pretty bad.  You’re looking at 2 additional months of summer heat in much of the state, and it’s not even over the state.  Some places are seeing a month, some places are seeing two months, and that western spur of the Appalachian chain, unfortunately, it’s not holding the cool as well as the central spine and eastern spurs.  So in that area especially, you’re going from a pretty mild, cool summer to a much warmer summer, and I would anticipate that will cause a lot of stress on trees and mature plants.  

Let’s see what will happen to the winters.  I use the USDA plant hardiness zone maps as a proxy for winter lows.  Looks like they’re projecting that Kentucky will be moving from 6 and 7 into pure zone 7.  And it does look like it’ll be a pretty consistent zone 7, you can see wide margins on that zone 7 going all around the state.  So that’s some good news, really, that means you can be fairly confident about the shift, it’s more challenging for people who are right on the margin of the predicted zone shifts.  

Pulling together what we’ve learned from both of those maps, if you think about areas that were looking at more than a month of increased heat and are also experiencing an increase in plant hardiness zone, you are looking at areas where plant communities are likely to change dramatically.  The federal reports refer to landscape transformation in the Southeast, and that is exactly what these maps indicate will be happening to Kentucky.  But when we think about landscape transformation here, how the landscape could change, we do come across another challenge.

There’s not a great match for what this projected climate would feel like that you could visit today.  It’ll be similar to northern Mississippi and northern Alabama’s current summer temps, but with a colder winter.  We’re talking about a transition into a more extreme environment, and not an environment for which we have great models.  We can’t look at a plant community further south, for example, and necessarily think it’ll be able to thrive in what Kentucky will become.

 But, let’s get some more information.  Let’s get some more pieces of this puzzle turned right side up before we put the puzzle together.  We’ll talk about water and weather for a few minutes.

Checking out the precipitation trends (760) for Kentucky, they’re pretty mixed.  Looks like both maps show milder patches around Bowling Green, with big instability just northeast of the city.  And thinking about weather, those summer highs and winter lows, those are pretty high summer temps for a zone seven area.  You’re talking about big seasonal transitions as you move from that hot summer to that cold winter.  And I don’t have a good source for this…  There is for some reason very little scholarly work so far on how these changes coming up will impact windstorms.  But it certainly seems like that seasonal temperature differential would increase your potential for serious straight-line winds, for big tornados and wind damage.

On the good news front, Kentucky, one of the strongest cards in your hand is your surface water.  When we’re talking about a big heatup, we always want to know the water outlook, because plants and other living things will need more water in the heat.  Kentucky has a lot of pride in its water, and the publicly available water monitoring info is intense.  This is the highest quality water resource I have found.  Check it out, there’s this nice overview sheet:

And then you can go into the viewer, you can look at a wide variety of water measures and contaminants, at a very high level of detail.  Easy to check out where you are.

You’ll find that not all of these factors allow the map to populate, but it’s still useful.

So this is a positive.  You’re not looking at water as a limiting factor, the water is well-monitored, people are taking care of this water.  This is a real strength.  Many water-rich states have worse problems with pollution than Kentucky does, and if you check out any of my forecasts for the Southwest, you’ll see how very many of our countrymen are going to be dealing with pretty extreme water scarcity.

So, putting all this together so far, thinking about changes to the natural world, we’re definitely talking about landscape transformation in Kentucky.  I mean, this level of change is going to be very difficult for many of your contemporary plant communities.  You are definitely looking at serious potential for wildfires, even in the national forest. 

There’s a lot that can be done to manage wildfires near towns and homes, both through controlled burns and landscaping choices.  This wildfire danger is extreme enough that I would place it near the top of the list as you weigh the risks and strengths of this area.  However, we are dealing with a unique situation where the water outlook is as strong and unusual a positive as the fire outlook is a strong and unusual negative.  Most places where I see a high risk of wildfire, they have a weaker water outlook than Kentucky.

Let’s get some more information as we put this picture together, this is a pretty complex outlook.  Let’s take a look at nighttime temperature projections.

One of the big challenges the Southeastern region is facing as a whole is warm nights.  Many parts of the South are of course hot during the summer, they already have a long hot summer.  But most parts of the South, you could expect that it would cool off well at night, (762) you’d have very few nights over 75, and that has been important both to agriculture and to human health.  In many states in the Southeastern region, we are seeing warm night increases that will have a huge impact on agricultural yields.  But we don’t see that necessarily being a problem across the state in Kentucky.

You can see that here in the eastern half of the state, (763) there’s good conservation of nighttime cool.  The western half of the state, however, will be looking at some nighttime warming.  This isn’t a terrible warm night forecast, even in the western half of the state- even in the areas projected to see the most nighttime warming, we’re talking about less than a month, probably, of warm nights by 2050. 

This is important though, here 791 we see that the daytime cooling needs will be a particularly big infrastructure challenge for the eastern half of the state.  We have more people there who haven’t had air conditioning before, and they’re going to need daytime air conditioning. 

So overall, the energy implications of these daytime and nighttime warming projections are big for the state, really substantial increased power needs in your outlook.  I want to note that there is already work being done to address this.  Louisville, for example, has already done a lot of adaptation work to put in cool roofs, roofs that break up the heat island effect, and will reduce the number of warm nights below the current projections.

Okay, so now we’re getting closer to being able to put this puzzle together.  Kentucky, let me be straight with you.  This is an extremely challenging outlook.  The state is likely to be looking at elevated severe weather risks, probably very destructive storms in the spring and the fall to accommodate that unusually large hot/cold transition.  That same unusually large temperature transition is likely to lead to landscape transformation.  You’re going to experience particularly high levels of ecosystem turnover, you might see forests die, and that would bring the danger of wildfire.  And between the daytime and nighttime warming projections, you are looking at an unusually large increase in demand on your power grid.

But here are the positives.  Your heat, it’s not going to push against human survival limits as much as it will further south.  The eastern half of the state, the half that is retaining its cool nights, that’s where you’ve got some unusually good agricultural potential for the region.  Could maintain more crop productivity there than in many other parts of the Southeast. 

If there’s a big strength here for the state, it’s in the water outlook.  However this landscape is going to transform, it will be able to do so verdantly.  And let me say again.  We don’t know how these landscapes will transform.  Kentucky needs vision, needs the strength to have a guiding hand, to use your rich water resources to help grow new landscapes. 

You’re going to need really active land management here to bring your state into its best possible future.  It will take experimentation and determination to learn what kind of a garden can be created in Kentucky under these projected conditions.  There are many living things that will be moving up from the northern Alabama, northern Mississippi region that will want to find a home, and that home could be here.  And the landscapes into which the familiar countryside in Kentucky will transform- right now, we can’t say what they’ll be.  There is tremendous potential here that will be defined by the actions of those brave enough to dig in here.  Opportunities for true self-determination, landscape-level self-determination. This is Dr. Schoerning with AR, signing out.  Please like and subscribe, help get the message out there.  There is hope.  We can prepare for what’s coming.  Let’s get ready.