There's No Place Like Nebraska for Weather

There's No Place Like Nebraska - for Weather

By Mary Garbacz

Nebraska's extreme weather must have been a surprise to the state's first settlers, especially when they tried to grow crops.

"It must have been awful!" said Ken Dewey, professor of climatology in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources. "I can't imagine being a farmer without today's technology of hybrid seeds and irrigation...going through the 22-year drought cycle when we turned into the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. What was it like for those people?"

Did those early settlers pass down their hardiness, their stubbornness to today's Nebraskans? "I think there's resilience in the DNA of people who live in Nebraska that they just hunker down and say 'we can do it,'" Dewey said. "So I think that's made the Nebraska population extremely resilient and very creative and innovative, and it's part of a culture that I didn't understand," he said.

Dewey grew up in the Chicago area and began a career there as a city planner - specializing in the design of on-and-off ramps. "I thought I was the happiest person in the world!" he said, especially when he learned that he might be promoted to designing guardrails and medians. But Illinois Planning Commission co-workers noticed he often stayed after work to watch sunsets and lake-effect weather from his 42nd floor office. One co-worker suggested his hobby might become his career, and that's when he returned to school to earn advanced degrees in climatology and environmental studies. He accepted an offer to teach and conduct research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, moving to a state where the wide horizons allowed him to see tornadoes, watch approaching weather systems and study the weather extremes the settlers battled in the 1800s.

"Nebraska began to grow on me in a way I never expected. I can't imagine being anywhere else," Dewey said. "What pulled me to Nebraska was the weather, and what has kept me here are the people."

Geography, Irrigation and Technology

Cozad, Nebraska marks the 100th meridian, representing 100 degrees of longitude west of Greenwich, England. The 100th meridian separates the United States into east and west, but in the last century, has been known as land that can be farmed without irrigation from land that requires irrigation. East of the 100th meridian, annual precipitation is at or above 20 inches. West of there, it's less than 20 inches...too dry to farm without irrigation. "So for farmers, I don't recommend Nebraska," Dewey said. "I think Illinois would be a better place. But if you're going to farm in Nebraska, the land's cheaper and it's probably a nicer place to be, but you need technology."

Even though the western part of the state is supposedly too dry to farm, the massive Ogallala Aquifer lies underneath much of Nebraska and supplies water for irrigation. Without irrigation, it would be tough to survive in farming, especially west of that 100th meridian. A combination of creativity, technology and water resources has made survival possible, Dewey said. Late spring freezes require short-season hybrid seed developed if replanting is to be successful. Pests that plagued early farmers can be controlled, as can weeds. Hail? Early fall freezes? Not so much.

Dr. Ken Dewey
Dr. Ken Dewey (Photo by UNL) and a storm front moving through the Great Plains (Photo by Dr. Ken Dewey)


Does Nebraska Have a Climate?

Nebraska doesn't "own" a climate, and that's one reason it's exciting to live here, Dewey said. "We're not the snowbelt, we're not the sunbelt, we're not a tropical climate, we're not Florida, we're not Hawaii, we're not a coastal climate. We have to share whatever somebody's going to send us...we're in the middle of a flat continent open entirely to the the cold air can come down," he explained. "We're open to the Gulf, and all that heat and humidity can come up here. And the mountains off to the west can mess with our weather." This is the only place that can have 70-degree weather in January, then plunge to 20 below zero within hours, he said.

Nebraska may not be predictable and it may not be an easy place to farm, but it's perfect for the study of the weather and climate. Dewey said his students don't want to be in forested areas or areas with mountains or tall buildings - they want to be here, where there are few trees and the wide plains and open sky allow them to study storms and weather. Students not only chase tornadoes, they chase snow storms and ice storms, determining where the snow will be deepest and the winds strongest - and they wait in inexpensive motels for the storm to arrive so they can have a firsthand experience, he said.

Climate Change: Adapting to the Future

"When you ask 'is there climate change?' we have to be careful how we define it," Dewey said; "there is climate variation that's profound, and we can relate it to Nebraska. Weather is huge differences from minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day...climate is a slow, gradual change - kind of like aging. But like aging, climate changes slowly. Our worry is that climate is changing faster than we've seen in climate history," he said. So whether you believe it's climate change, which could be permanent, or variation, which means it's just changing in this direction, it is having a profound effect in Nebraska, he said.

The variability in Nebraska weather makes it more difficult to see climate change here, Dewey said. "When we have a Nebraska climate that can have 30 inches of snow in North Platte in the month of October...and one week after it was near 90 degrees...people don't see climate change because they're too busy jumping back and forth and reacting to all the information that's coming at them," he said.

"Think about the climate as a patient. It's aging - like a patient - and there are some things that don't seem right," he said. "There's no natural thing we can do to stop climate warming. There's no natural thing you can do to stop aging, but you can slow it down by living a good lifestyle," he said. Scientists don't know if the climate is going to continue to get warmer, so "all we can do is slowly change what we're doing." As an example, Dewey said some countries are already operating vehicles experimentally that have rooftop solar panels that collect more energy than the car needs. That excess energy can be downloaded to the grid for other uses. Other new technologies are already in use, such as hydrogen power for vehicles, forming what may be the clean future of transportation.

The key is for people to adapt to changing conditions. "If it gets colder and you've found a way to get energy cheaper in Nebraska...and you've investigated different types of seeds for warmer conditions and at the same time found some seeds for colder...and you've insulated your win," he said. "It's as simple as that. It's called adapting."

Dewey has traveled to other countries, as well as all 50 U.S. states, studying the effects of climate change. In 2009, he drove to Alaska and the Yukon on a 10,000 mile journey to study climate change with other scientists and found real and documented change. "I didn't have trouble finding climate change in the Arctic," he said. Some glaciers had retreated more than nine miles in 20 years; permafrost had melted out, causing roads and buildings to collapse; wildlife had moved out of areas so indigenous cultures can no longer hunt for their food.

"That made me come back to Nebraska and say 'what can I see here?' And it's so obvious," he said.

Longtime Nebraska farmers acknowledge that there have been changes over the years, he said. Pests are wintering over; there is rust on the winter wheat because it's damp longer in the fall and earlier in the spring. Generally, snow now covers the ground for a shorter period of time in the winter. There is more evaporation; some habitats are changing. Toxic weeds are moving up out of the south - weeds that we haven't had to deal with in the past that are coming into Nebraska because the climate is changing, he said.

"So, this is the future. Climate changes can't be stopped, but you can adapt and use that as an opportunity to jump forward into additional technology and challenges, especially here in Nebraska."