On the heels of the G7 Summit in France, a lot of topics are fresh in many people’s minds.
World leaders from across the globe met to discuss the most pressing issues facing the world today.
One of those issues is climate change.
It’s a controversial subject, but one that many people feel needs to be discussed.
One of those people is Geary County Extension Agent Chuck Otte.
“It’s affecting everything around us,” he said. “People want to argue about it and I basically say the science is there. Climate change is happening. If you want to argue, we can argue about how much of it is human-caused — which I think is a lot — but it is changing.”
In what ways is the climate changing?
“More extremes in the weather,” Otte said.
While Kansas, he said, has historically been prone to extremes, those extremes have grown more pronounced.
“We had a 11-month drought and now we’ve had a 12-month wet spell,” Otte said. “Our average annual rainfall is 33 inches. Since Sept. 1 of last year, we’ve had 48 inches. And probably in a few more months, it will swing back the other way, at some point in time.”
Weeks of dry weather are followed, he said, by complete deluges — weeks of rain.
While daytime high temperatures are often not that high, Otte said, but overnight lows are higher and the overall trend is warmer.
“You can look at average annual temperature and it kind of bottomed out in the ‘70s in what we call the mini-ice age, which was typical across the United States” he said. “And ever since then, it’s been on a pretty upwards trajectory.”
According to Otte, extreme cold snaps are the product of global climate change. He cited a cold spell last year where, in parts of the country, temperatures reached -60 degrees.
“These warm air masses were going up and disrupting the cold air aloft and making it — causing it to dive down to southern latitudes and lower elevations,” he said. “Because it was displaced by warmer air.”
He also cited recent issues with blue green algae — which has started occurring further north, he said — as proof of climate change.
So it’s happening and it’s happening here, Otte said.
But what does this mean for local crop producers?
Right now, according to Otte, it’s hard to say.
Higher temperatures might lead to longer growing seasons, but heat isn’t the only thing that has an impact on crops.
“There’s mixed camps on whether we’re going to be higher or lower precipitation,” Otte said. “We may come out of this with about the same precipitation, but with warmer temperatures, it’s going to be the effect of having the temperature not change and having less rainfall.”
Crop producers will have to learn to contend with hotter weather, if temperatures rise as Otte believes they will.
“Wheat is a cool season grass,” he said. “It doesn’t like temperatures above 85 or 90.”
If these temperatures start occurring earlier in the year, it could have an impact on wheat production. To contend with that, farmers will need to find wheat with higher heat tolerance or that matures earlier in the year, he said. Wheat that matures early, according to Otte, could be more susceptible to late freezes.
If breeding more adaptable wheat is not an option, Otte said, people may find themselves growing different crops in Geary County. Corn and soybeans have been on the rise locally, he said.
But it may not be just a matter of switching out wheat for something that’s more cold and drought resistant.
“A lot of our county is tallgrass prairie,” he said. “As temperatures increase, we’re going to see shifts there. Certain plants are going to become more likely to become weed issues — invasive issues. And we’re constantly fighting invasive plants, invasive shrubs, invasive trees in the pastures all the time.”
According to Otte, there hasn’t been as much research on native prairie to predict what will happen when overall temperatures rise.
Landscape and garden plants, too, could be impacted.
Otte suggests people start looking to flowers and trees that grow well in the south rather than those that thrive north of Kansas. Otte advises against blue spruce, which he said never grew well in Kansas in the first place.
“For anything plant related — the climate’s changing,” he said. “For wildlife too. Migratory birds are arriving sooner, leaving later and that can cause problems.”
Otte stresses that no one is immune from the impact of a changing climate.
“If I could do one thing, it would be to help people understand how interconnected the entire globe is when it comes to weather, when it comes to plants, when it comes to everything,” Otte said. “I think that we see a sad loss of scientific biological awareness in the population .. People have to understand, we are not separate and exempt from the natural world. We are a part of the natural world.”
Right now, it’s impossible to know exactly what the future holds for Geary County farmers.
“Like I tell people, 50 years from now I’ll be able to tell you a lot more,” he said.
But according to Otte, it’s apparent what’s happening right now.
Two extremes, he said, that are visible on a global scale right now are the burning of the Amazon rainforest and the melting of the permafrost in both the Arctic and the Antarctic.
“It’s all going to wind up with rising sea levels, plain and simple,” Otte said. “And people on the coast — you can deny it, but it’s happening right now. There are cities in Florida that are already dealing with rising sea levels and having to relocate. You can argue about it — whether it’s happening or not — but it is happening. I’ve got friends who won’t agree with me, but that’s fine.”
This is a global, societal issue and as such many people, even among those who feel climate change is at least partially manmade, don’t feel they can have an impact on it.
Otte feels, however, that people can start with awareness. Polluting less and putting less carbon into the atmosphere are all good ideas, he believes.
“Become more aware of the natural world around you,” he said. “Don’t assume business as usual is going to work.”