This is Dr. Emily Schoerning with AR, and I’d like to say hello to all our friends in South Dakota. This is our first state-level forecast within the Northern Great Plains region, and let me tell you, I’m very excited. This region is the only part of the US forecast to have a potential increase in agricultural productivity. I hear that, I want to learn more.
Unless you care about agricultural productivity, you might not know much about this region, which has only 1.5 percent of the US population, but produces nearly 13% of our country’s agricultural market value. And South Dakota’s agricultural production is booming.
Now, of course, that also presents problems. As we look at the South Dakota forecast, we’ve got a tension here, and that can be summed up as man vs bird. While agricultural production goes up, as we see conversion within the state from grassland to cropland, that has a negative impact on what you might call wild bird production. At least half of North American waterfowl- all your nice ducks, northern pintails, canvasbacks, blue-winged teal, pretty much you name it- they hatch in what’s called the Prairie Pothole Region. South Dakota has historically had a lot of this habitat, but we’ll see how the agricultural production is decreasing that habitat, and how we might find a balance by restoring wetlands habitat in other states as market forces shift them away from staple crop production.
To understand this tension, we’ll start by looking at how water, weather, and seasonality are projected to change in South Dakota. That’ll give us the framework we really need to understand the impact on crops and animals, let us think about some potential solutions to the problem.
The Northern Great Plains are a region where water is a limiting resource, and that’s true in South Dakota as well. South Dakota, though, compared to regional neighbors, has a pretty good water outlook. Groundwater and aquifer recharge rates are looking pretty good in most of the state, they’re projected to be sustainable given current dynamics around water extraction. So that’s hopeful news already, South Dakota has water in the bank. Now let’s look at how precipitation is projected to change.
And here, we can dig down into average changes in precipitation on page 960: Small changes except for southeast corner, and remember, variability will outweigh average changes. Variability will be bad enough under RCP 4.5, from looking at the data, I’d rather not test it at 8.5. If we can’t get emissions down to this moderate, doable RCP 4.5 scenario, we’re looking at serious, serious drough/deluge, to the point that the instability may largely offset increased production.
Under the RCP 4.5 scenario we see no change in summer precipitation, but under the RCP 8.5 scenario summer rain will decrease substantially. Regardless of emissions scenario, we’re talking about a 10 percent increase in winter/spring precip by 2050, most as rain not snow. So, wet spring, with the planting difficulties that can entail. We can also expect fewer days of hail as we approach mid-century, but that’s offset by the unfortunate fact that when you do get hail in South Dakota as we get towards 2050, it’s anticipated to be real big, very damaging.
Before we go on, it’s important to note again- because the feds make a point of saying this about seven times in the report, they want to make it very clear- that changes in extreme events will overpower average changes. South Dakota is going to want to participate in regional water planning, and it’s worth acknowledging that there’s a lot of that good work happening in the state today.
Now let’s look at how the seasons will change. We’ll look at the change in plant hardiness zones first, give you an idea of what to expect in the winters:
HARDI- big expansion of zone 5
And we can see here that the feds are predicting there will be fewer cool days. 954
Now, with zone 5 being still a pretty cold winter- you know, I live in a zone 5 region and you get days that freeze the inside of your nose in zone 5- there being fewer cool days indicates to me that when winter does come on, it’ll be coming on like a freight train. Real intense shift in seasonality.
We can see here 954 that hot days are going to be increasing substantially. And if we look at the USDA heat zone map: HEAT
That really reinforces that image. These summers, they’re going to be so different, it’s just going to be transformational for the landscape. Pulling all this information together, we foresee that the growing season will be longer, the seasonal transitions are likely to be real intense, and the summer will be dramatically longer and hotter than anything we are used to in the region.
Anyone who likes growing things is going to see this change in the local climate and understand what this means. As long as there’s water, there are going to be more plants here. Dramatically more biomass, a bigger mass of plant growth. We expect more total plants- and accordingly more total crops. But we’ve got to remember that there will be more extreme weather events. These extreme events could impact grain fill and pollination of staple crops, and some years they will. But a plant that can get good vegetative growth here will have a gangbusters time. Right now, that means a lot of weeds will enjoy themselves. But thinking about how to capitalize on vegetative growth, I tell you, I’d be very interested in the emerging perennial grains for this area. Cuts down the amount of spring planting you’d have to worry about, good for soil conservation, and if conditions are bad when they should be setting or filling grain, at least you get some plant growth, hopefully have plenty of energy for a great harvest next year.
But, I’ll stop speculating on that, start speculating on another thing. Because it’s also worth noting that more total plants will change the hydrology of the region- I have not seen this written about much, but anyone who knows plants, you would expect more water consumption, particularly in that summer heat. As another consideration, if you get enough biomass, it’s going to cause changes to the local weather. And those can be positive or negative. Coming from an agricultural region of Iowa, I have personal experience with summer corn sweats, I would call those a definite negative. You get weather systems that are driven by the respiration of the corn. They’re pretty intense, hold a lot of humidity close to the ground in the region, and can actually negatively impact your ability to get a good honest rain. But I hear that if you get good tree growth, you can get a positive feedback system going with the weather, get better, more even rains.
Okay, now I’m done speculating. Let’s get back to the research.
So this is a lot of information we’re taking in related to how different it will feel on the ground in South Dakota. Really, pretty transformed in some ways, and the agricultural capacity will be transformed, but we need to remember that’s far from the only economic activity in the region. Let’s get back towards that man-bird conflict. Migratory birds are big business. In South Dakota alone, hunters spent $84.7 million in 2015–2016 on migratory bird hunting (in 2016 dollars; $83.9 in 2015 dollars). These are dollars going into South Dakota communities, dollars supporting local culture and traditions. When we think about this land use conflict, favoring either agriculture or hatching game birds, it’s worth remembering that both of these land use choices are major economic drivers right here in South Dakota.
And both of those choices have a lot of resonance with our values. I think some people get the feeling that birds are, like, a fluffy cause, kind of a liberal cause. But look at the facts on the ground. Much of your habitat preservation, your work to save North America’s bird habitat, has come from the hunting community. Both of my grandfathers loved to hunt birds. Both of my grandfathers were involved in the move away from lead shot, both of them raised money for land preservation, and I donate to fish and game causes in their memories, keep the work going for another generation. Hunting is a part of my family heritage, and part of my connection to the land.
Farming, the production of food, that’s also a huge moral value! Farmers, every farmer I know, they’re driven by a desire to feed the world. They don’t want people to go hungry. And if you’ve got your eyes and ears open, you know that international hunger is going to be a big problem as we approach midcentury. We probably won’t go hungry here in North America, we have a very favorable relative outlook here, but there will be tremendous hunger in the world. Tremendous suffering.
So when we make these land use decisions, between crops and birds, there’s a lot going on emotionally. Let’s look at the scale of the problem.
Page 970: Grasslands conversion to cropland. Shows SD biggest net loss
Right now, we can see South Dakota is choosing crops. There in Eastern South Dakota, you can see that’s part of the Prairie Pothole Region. And if you’ll remember from our precipitation data, I think we need to recall that this region with this very high conversion to cropland, it is the most impacted by precipitation uncertainty and concerns about flooding.
So, this area deep in the tension between birds and crops, if we do too much cropland conversion, there is a real tipping point where we’ll have diminishing agricultural returns. We need a certain amount of those wetlands to be able to keep the cropland safe from massive flooding, wipe out the production for the year.
There are folks in South Dakota taking a nice approach to finding this balance, taking a market-based approach. There’s non-abstract value, practical value, in preserving the wetlands. They provide ecosystem services, that’s a fancy way of saying they keep the floods down, they provide pollinators, those benefits we get from leaving some land wild. So nonprofits are paying landowners and managers to provide those ecosystem services, to leave the land wild, to do restoration work. I think that’s a great part of the solution.
Another part of the solution, another part of the balance, is that South Dakota can’t do it alone. The Prairie Pothole Region, you can see it extends up into Canada, and some of that area, we’re going to have more potential to grow crops, too. And we’re going to need to use some of that potential. We have not known real hunger as a society for a long time, but farmers know. We don’t want to go back there.
But, there are parts of the Prairie Pothole Region where conversion to grassland, away from cropland, is going to be more economically smart. In central Iowa here, I see my neighbors already beginning to experiment with this. There are places in the PPR where it’s time to do more wetlands restoration, more prairie restoration, because it’s getting too hot and too dry. There are places in the larger PPR where we’re better off turning away from grain production before we wear out the soil, give South Dakota a turn to shine.
These state-level forecasts- a lot of us want to better understand how the changes that are coming are going to impact our homes and communities, and I feel like the state-level understanding -and resilience- is very important. But we need to remember also that we’re connected. That there are problems we can’t solve on our own, that we can’t solve just on a state level. The ecosystem services provided by the Prairie Pothole Region, that’s a great example of a regional problem, a large-scale problem, that we’ll need to solve together as Americans.
Let me tell you, there’s a lot in this South Dakota forecast I left out. The work being done by the tribal nations to anticipate climate change- and look at this map, 955, look at how much of the state we’re talking about just by land area- the Flathead, the Lakota, the Cheyenne, all doing amazing work to prepare. The InterTribal Buffalo Council, the work they’re doing to prepare for the buffalo herds to thrive in this changing climate, it’s so smart. And I wanted to talk more about the oil and gas industry, share how this industry is likely to be quite negatively impacted by the changes in the region, and is projected to require a lot more water. So, it’ll be good for the state in several ways as we undergo the energy transition. We’re all going to need that water for living things, whether crops or birds.
But, I feel like I’ve been going on for a super long time. There is literally not enough time for me to talk about all the reasons I am excited about South Dakota’s future. Is the state facing challenges? Of course. We all are facing challenges. But the overall outlook is very hopeful, and you’ve got people in the state really running to get on top of the challenges. And this state, which has been so long overlooked, is a state that will be at the heart of the moral and practical problems facing us all. It’s so important!
If you’re smart, you’ll keep your eye on South Dakota. I’m wishing you all the best.