Helping Nebraskans Navigate Climate Change

By Christine Hunt

Nebraska is going to get warmer. It's just a matter of how much warmer, according to Martha Shulski, director of the High Plains Regional Climate Center (HPRCC) and assistant professor in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources. Rising temperatures are just one concern Nebraskans have about the changing climate. Most questions asked are on a very local scale, said Shulski. "They want to know 'how is climate change going to affect me in Lincoln in order for me to make informed decisions and better decisions for planning purposes?' It's very difficult to give them an answer. It's hard to tell them in 50 years, high temperatures in Lincoln are going to be exactly X degrees," she said.

"I think we've got a pretty good indication of where the global mean temperature is heading but the finer the scale you go, the more difficult it gets to understand climate change," said Shulski.

Climatology is complex and involves a number of different systems. "If you look at the climate system on the whole, you've got the ocean, the land, everything that's on the land, the atmosphere and how all of these things are connected and how the feedbacks interact. It's a very, very complex system, so it's good to have an oceanographer, an atmospheric scientist, a terrestrial scientist and a glaciologist," said Shulski. As climatology evolves it is becoming more interdisciplinary. "All of these disciplines come together to help solve climate issues and climate problems," said Shulski, who hopes that climate science will continue to improve, providing people with more localized answers.

The HPRCC collects and analyzes climate data for the entire country, focusing on Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado and is one of six regional climate centers in the United States.

The HPRCC's activities can be put into one of three categories:
1. Applied research on climate issues in the region
2. Education and outreach activities and maintaining a network of weather stations throughout the region and gathering climate data
3. Quality control and making data available to the public

"It's really all centered around climate services and helping people find the climate data and information that they need for whatever purpose that may be, whether it's engineering or legal purposes or somebody doing a school project," said Shulski.

The HPRCC relies on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Weather Service for much of its data. These organizations have large numbers of stations throughout the country, ranging from automated stations at airports that take observations hourly or even every 15 minutes, to people in the community who volunteer and take manual observations once a day, said Shulski. All the high-quality weather data, weather information and climate information from these sources are put into a uniform system that is accessible to anyone through the Internet. "Anybody in the country can grab data and it looks the same whether you go to the Western Center or our Center or the Northeast," said Shulski, "We try and have this seamless way in which we can serve our users."

Originally from Nebraska, Shulski earned her undergraduate degree in meteorology from North Carolina State University, a master's degree in agricultural meteorology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a Ph.D. in soils and climate from the University of Minnesota. After finishing her degree in Minnesota, she worked for seven years in Alaska before returning to Nebraska to become the director of the HPRCC.

As an applied researcher, Shulski seeks to understand what issues are important to people and how climate data and climate products can help people to solve problems.

Studying the Past, Predicting the Future
One way to help people is by predicting future weather conditions. According to Shulski, it's important to look into the future and predict climate variability and change throughout the next century. "That's obviously very important for sustainability in providing some sort of guideline in terms of, 'how is the climate going to change in theory, in the future and what sort of sustainability practices would you need to use given a certain amount of climate change?'" she said.

The HPRCC's historical database of weather and climate information shows a long historical record of what has happened in the past, including how past weather conditions related to various environmental factors. These records assist scientists like Shulski in making predictions about future climate and weather conditions.

Trends Predict Warmer, Drier
When Shulski and her colleagues study the historical climate and weather data, they see mainly two trends. One trend is the variability in weather conditions from year to year and decade to decade due to Nebraska's highly continental climate. The second is a general warming trend. According to Shulski, the warming is on the order of about a degree or so per century. "There's a greater amount of warming from the nighttime low temperatures as compared to the daytime high temperatures. If you look across the region, the further north you go, the more warming there is. The rates in say, North Dakota are greater than the warming rates are in Nebraska. And that's something that's true globally," she said.

Precipitation, according to Shulski, is more difficult to predict due to year-to-year variability and lack of a strong signal in the historical record. "In precipitation, there's not a lot of confidence in terms of what direction we'll go. It's likely, though, that there will be a drying rather than wetter than normal conditions," said Shulski.

Warmer and drier conditions for the state could have a big impact during the growing season when crops are in need of water, said Shulski. If we get warmer summertime temperatures and drier weather, what does that mean for agriculture?

Consequences of Climate Change
Shulski believes water availability might become an issue in the future. With over eight and a half million irrigated acres in Nebraska, how does the state sustain that demand? "Right now it comes from ground water but that's not an infinite source," said Shulski. "Where is it going to come from and is the quality going to be good enough for your purposes?" That's the next big thing in Nebraska, nationally and globally, she said.

Dr. Martha Shulski

Dr. Martha Shulski

Shulski believes climate change will force many to change their energy use practices. If temperatures increase during the summer time and Nebraskans become more reliant on air conditioning, energy use will increase. As temperatures warm, people at a higher altitude or higher latitude location who normally don't need air conditioning or use much energy in the summertime, will
now need to use more energy. It might have an opposite effect in the wintertime. If the winters are not as cold, on average, then the energy use is going to be different, she said.

Climate Affects Everyone's Food
Climate affects water, energy and personal comfort but also food and food prices, not only in Nebraska but nationally and globally, said Shulski. Everyone is affected by the conditions of crops growing in various areas. "What's going on in California could have an impact on the kinds of vegetables we can get in the wintertime. Or if there's a freeze in Florida, then that could impact citrus prices and the price of grapefruit we have here in Lincoln," she said. Nebraska weather conditions influence crop yields to some degree and that could influence grain prices or prices for beef or cattle.

According to Shulski, we don't live in an isolated state where what happens here only affects us here. Nebraska weather conditions affect not only producers, the people who grow the food, but the people who eat the food or process the food.

Global Climate Partners
Climate is truly global and the climate center shares knowledge with universities and countries all over the world. Recently, the HPRCC hosted a delegation from Chile needing information on installing similar kinds of weather stations: how the stations are set up, how quality control is performed on the data and how the instruments are calibrated, said Shulski. And in 2010 Shulski traveled to the University of Zagreb in Croatia to learn what kinds of courses they teach and what kinds of research they are doing. Shulski looks for ways the HPRCC and global partners can work together.

"The HPRCC itself is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)," said Shulski, "that's what makes us go and what funds our staff and what funds our operational products and services." For specific research projects the HPRCC looks to NOAA for other sources of funding, as well as to the United States Department of Agriculture, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Science Foundation, she said.


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