Colorado State University Scientists Find Continued Drought Possible in Great Plains, Offer Coping Strategies

Preparations for another potentially dry winter are under way, but how will the Great Plains states cope with these changes in weather patterns in the short and long terms? Scientists at Colorado State University’s Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory addressed the critical issue of managing agricultural land, open space and water resources under warmer, drier conditions in a recently released report, "Preparing for a Changing Climate: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change – Central Great Plains."

The Central Great Plains region consists of all or part of four states including Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas. The four main sectors discussed in the report include ranching and livestock systems, crop systems, conservation and natural areas and water resources. All of these sectors are vitally important to the economy of the region.

The report is the result of a three-year study, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, that focuses on how the climate in the Central Great Plains region may change in the next 50 and 100 years and what steps agricultural communities and society in general might take to adapt to changing weather patterns. Strategies for managing the lands or water resources differently in order to respond to a changed climate was an important part of the study.

Scientists at Colorado State’s NREL used two climate models to project a range of potential future climate conditions in the region. Results from the climate models indicate the possibility of decreased snowpack; increased extreme rainfall events; increased temperatures, especially minimum temperatures; earlier spring runoff; increased crop production due to increased carbon dioxide; and decreased soil moisture due to increased evaporation concurrent with warmer temperatures.

Other projections particularly important in the region include the possibility of increased drought episodes and more frequent and severe wildfires. These are pressures that communities and local governments are currently dealing with in the region.

The report also includes possible suggestions for coping with the climate change. The coping strategies suggested are designed to be useful whether or not the climate changes in a certain direction.

"One general coping strategy that was discussed in all groups is to develop decision-support systems based on adaptive management strategies to improve how land in the Great Plains is managed," said Dennis Ojima, senior research scientist at Colorado State’s NREL and the lead scientist on the project. "This tool will help landowners decide how best to use their land for the mutual benefit of their operations and natural systems."

Diversification may be a key to coping with potential climatic changes. Diversification can take many forms including diversifying the crop or livestock mix, integrating crop and livestock operations, off-farm income or recreational opportunities on agricultural properties.

The Central Great Plains is just one of 19 regions represented in the current National Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Climate Variability and Change. The assessment was mandated by the "Global Change Research Act of 1990" and results are submitted to the president and U.S. Congress.

The report is available to the public in print or on the Web at For more information or for a printed copy, contact Jill Lackett at (970) 491-2343 or