Northern Great Plains

By: , and 
Edited by: David ReidmillerC. W. AveryD. R. EasterlingK. E. KunkelK. L. M. LewisT. K. Maycock, and B. C. Stewart



In the Northern Great Plains, the timing and quantity of both precipitation and runoff have important consequences for water supplies, agricultural activities, and energy production. Overall, climate projections suggest that the number of heavy precipitation events (events with greater than 1 inch per day of rainfall) is projected to increase. Moving forward, the magnitude of year-to-year variability overshadows the small projected average decrease in streamflow. Changes in extreme events are likely to overwhelm average changes in both the eastern and western regions of the Northern Great Plains. Major flooding across the basin in 2011 was followed by severe drought in 2012, representing new and unprecedented variability that is likely to become more common in a warmer world.

The Northern Great Plains region plays a critical role in national food security. Among other anticipated changes, projected warmer and generally wetter conditions with elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are expected to increase the abundance and competitive ability of weeds and invasive species, increase livestock production and efficiency of production, and result in longer growing seasons at mid- and high latitudes. Net primary productivity, including crop yields and forage production, is also likely to increase, although an increasing number of extreme temperature events during critical pollination and grain fill periods is likely to reduce crop yields.

Ecosystems across the Northern Great Plains provide recreational opportunities and other valuable goods and services that are ingrained in the region’s cultures. Higher temperatures, reduced snow cover, and more variable precipitation will make it increasingly challenging to manage the region’s valuable wetlands, rivers, and snow-dependent ecosystems. In the mountains of western Wyoming and western Montana, the fraction of total water in precipitation that falls as snow is expected to decline by 25% to 40% by 2100 under a higher scenario (RCP8.5), which would negatively affect the region’s winter recreation industry. At lower-elevation areas of the Northern Great Plains, climate-induced land-use changes in agriculture can have cascading effects on closely entwined natural ecosystems, such as wetlands, and the diverse species and recreational opportunities they support.

Energy resources in the Northern Great Plains include abundant crude oil, natural gas, coal, wind, and stored water, and to a lesser extent, corn-based ethanol, solar energy, and uranium. The infrastructure associated with the extraction, distribution, and energy produced from these resources is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Railroads and pipelines are vulnerable to damage or disruption from increasing heavy precipitation events and associated flooding and erosion. Declining water availability in the summer would likely increase costs for oil production operations, which require freshwater resources. These cost increases will either lead to lower production or be passed on to consumers. Finally, higher maximum temperatures, longer and more severe heat waves, and higher overnight lows are expected to increase electricity demand for cooling in the summer, further stressing the power grid.

Indigenous peoples in the region are observing changes to climate, many of which are impacting livelihoods as well as traditional subsistence and wild foods, wildlife, plants and water for ceremonies, medicines, and health and well-being. Because some tribes and Indigenous peoples are among those in the region with the highest rates of poverty and unemployment, and because many are still directly reliant on natural resources, they are among the most at risk to climate change (e.g., Gamble et al. 2016, Cozzetto et al. 2013, Espey et al. 2014, Wong et al. 2014, Kornfeld 2016, Paul and Caplins 2016, Maynard 2014, USGCRP 2017)

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Other Government Series
Title Northern Great Plains
DOI 10.7930/NCA4.2018.CH22
Year Published 2018
Language English
Publisher U.S. Global Change Research Program
Contributing office(s) Office of Science Quality and Integrity
Description 26 p.
Larger Work Type Report
Larger Work Subtype Other Government Series
Larger Work Title Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II
First page 941
Last page 986
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