Conference puts Midwest center stage in climate change discussion

Nov. 12, 2015, 6:44 a.m. ·

Climate change in the Artic could have a direct effect on how we manage agricultural and water resources in the Midwest. (Photo courtesy of NOAA)

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World leaders meet in Paris later this month to discuss climate change. This week, climatologists, researchers, and policymakers are converging on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s campus to discuss how the Great Plains factors in. NET News Reporter Ben Bohall sat down with University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor and climatologist Don Wilhite to ask how big changes in the Arctic could affect the Midwest.

NET NEWS: How did this conference take shape?

PROFESSOR AND CLIMATOLOGIST DON WILHITE: "I think the major stimulus for it was the fact that we learned earlier this year that the U.S. government was going to take over leadership of what's called the Arctic Council. The Arctic Council is made up of eight nations that have territory in the Arctic and so the U.S. took over chairmanship. This is through the U.S. Department of State, so John Kerry, secretary of state, is the actual chair of the Arctic Council. The US took over the chairmanship in April of this year. And so we started talking about having an event that would sort of fit in with the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council. And there's quite a bit of scientific debate going on right now with regards to the implications of changes in the Arctic and terms of loss of sea ice and warming and what the implications of that will be actually for the middle latitudes in terms of severe weather and extreme climate events. We thought this was a great opportunity maybe to organize a workshop and bring it to Nebraska, but obviously as more regional and national in scope."

Don Wilhite is a professor and climatologist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. (Photo courtesy of UNL)

NET NEWS: You have several experts - be it climatologists, researchers, scientists - you name it, from all over the country. Why so much emphasis on the Midwest here?

PROFESSOR AND CLIMATOLOGIST DON WILHITE: "Well I think the emphasis on the Midwest is, for one thing, the meeting is being hosted here at the University of Nebraska. Also this region, not only the Great Plains, but also the Midwestern part of the U.S. is the breadbasket of the world. More severe weather, more extreme climate events, certainly is an issue with regards to national food security and global food security… That translates into two really critical sectors. One is water resources. What's going to happen in terms of water resources? We're going to see more dry years, more wet years, or both more extremes. Also, how does this play out with agriculture and the ability of this region to produce large quantities of food. Much of that is exported to various places in the world. So what happens here has ramifications globally. We thought the emphasis should be on the central U.S. in this case. But we're not to the exclusion of other areas in the country. I'm sure they're going to come up. But really our focus is more on the Midwest and in the Central Great Plains."

President Barack Obama will meet with other world leaders at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, set to take place November 30 through December 11 in Paris. (Photo courtesy of White House)

NET NEWS: How then does that change water and agricultural management practices?

PROFESSOR AND CLIMATOLOGIST DON WILHITE: "We're expecting Nebraska, for example, to be projected to go into a drying trend, the central Great Plains more broadly. So we're going to have warmer temperatures which is going to put more demand on our water resources. It's going to change the way we manage our water resources not just in Nebraska but throughout this region in the central United States. And it's going to require continuing changes in agricultural management practices. To use water more efficiently. There's more and more conflict between different water users now, between urban areas and agricultural areas, with the utility industry and production of energy and power. So I think in the future we see a more variable climate as we see a changing climate. It's really going to reflect the need for changes in management practices for both the water sector and the ag sector. This obviously has significant implications for ecosystems and management of ecosystems. And a lot of other a lot of other sectors within the regions as well."

NET NEWS: As I was reading an itinerary of events I noticed there will be a breakout session focused solely on "communication strategies." Is that an issue in dealing with a dense topic like this one?

PROFESSOR AND CLIMATOLOGIST DON WILHITE: "It is a very complex topic and one of the reasons why I think we see confusion on the part of the public in that a lot of people don't understand the issues associated with the changing climate. You have a lot of people that are maybe in the category of denying the climate is changing. The data shows us that it really is changing and it's pretty dramatic. But it tends to be changing at different rates for different locations. One of the challenges that we have, whether you’re a climate scientist, ecologist, or water specialists and so forth, is how do you communicate this information to not only the general public but to managers of the systems so that they will absorb this information and actually use it in a way to sort of change the way they manage a resource. There's been quite a bit of research in recent years about how to do that and how to best connect with more the managers and the practitioners. The participants in the workshop will be a combination of scientists, but also managers and practitioners, also people that are engaged in the art and the science of how you communicate complex science information to the public. Policymakers will be here that will hopefully take this information in and use it as they move forward with changes in policy at the state level, national level and so forth."

NET NEWS: What purpose do you think a conference like this serves in solving this problem?

PROFESSOR AND CLIMATOLOGIST DON WILHITE: "I think exploring the certainties and uncertainties of the science in terms of the linkages between what's happening in the Arctic and what we're seeing in terms of changes in our severe weather and climate patterns. I think there will be clarification of that. There will be an open discussion about how we might move forward in terms of changing management strategies for both water resources and agriculture in the region. It's a first attempt to sort of look at the implications of that from a management perspective. Beyond that I hope a couple of the principal sponsors of the meeting which are the U.S. Department of Agriculture and NOAA; this may be used to help direct some future research funding into these areas. If we can identify research gaps and needs that these agencies that actually support research through various kinds of grant programs, they can tailor some of these programs to answer some of these questions that we identify during our workshop."