Farming and ranching are the primary land uses of the Great Plains, but urban areas provide housing and jobs for about two-thirds of the region's people. Native ecosystems and agricultural fields exist along with small rural communities and expanding metropolitan centers. This area of the country produces much of the nation's grain, meat, and fiber, including more than 60 percent of the wheat, 87 percent of the sorghum, and 36 percent of the cotton. The region also carries more than 60 percent of the nation's livestock, including both grazing and grain-fed-cattle operations.
Temperatures in the northern and central Great Plains have risen more than 2°F (1°C) in the last 100 years, with increases up to 5.5°F (3°C) in parts of Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Over the same time period, annual precipitation has decreased by 10 percent in eastern Montana, North Dakota, eastern Wyoming, and Colorado. In the eastern portion of the Great Plains, precipitation has increased by more than 10 percent. Texas has experienced significantly higher intensity rainfall. The snow season ends earlier in the spring, reflecting the greater seasonal warming in winter and spring.
Climate models project that temperatures will continue to rise throughout the region, with the largest increases in the western parts of the Great Plains, causing significant heat stress for both people and livestock. On a seasonal basis, more warming is projected for the winter and spring seasons than for the summer and fall. Precipitation is expected to increase in the north, but decrease in the west adjacent to the Rocky Mountains. According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a
25 percent decrease is projected in the Oklahoma Panhandle, northern Texas, eastern Colorado, and western Kansas. Even though there will be an increase in precipitation for parts of the Great Plains, increased evaporation is also projected due to rising air temperatures, which will result in a net soil moisture decline for large parts of the region, negatively affecting agricultural activities.
Water supply, demand, allocation, storage, and quality are all affected by global warming issues. Farming and ranching currently use more than half of the region's water resources. Groundwater pumping for irrigation has currently depleted aquifers in parts of the Great Plains by withdrawing water much faster than it can currently be recharged. Under today's irrigation demands, water table levels are dropping in southern portions of the region. The projected global warming-induced changes in water resources are expected to exacerbate the current competition for water among the agricultural sector; natural ecosystems; and urban, industrial, and recreational users. Possible solutions include switching to crops that use less water, retiring marginal lands from farming, and adopting conservation tillage methods.
Invasive species are currently a serious challenge in both the native ecosystems and agricultural systems. Global warming is projected to alter the current biodiversity of the region, and the possible migration of invasive species across the Great Plains is a significant concern.
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