The Southern Great Plains experiences weather that is dramatic and consequential; from hurricanes and flooding to heat waves and drought, its 34 million people, their infrastructure, and economies are often stressed, greatly impacting socioeconomic systems. The quality of life for the region’s residents is dependent upon resources and natural systems for the sustainable provision of our basic needs—food, energy, and water. Extreme weather and climate events have redistributed demands for consumption, production, and supply across the region. Adaptation strategies that integrate climate services and early warning systems are improving our abilities to develop sustainable infrastructure and increase agricultural production, yet include the flexibility needed to embrace any changing demand patterns.
Regional adaptation efforts that harden or relocate critical infrastructure will reduce the risk of climate change impacts. Redesigns of coastal infrastructure and the use of green/gray methodologies are improving future coastal resilience. Energy industry reinvention is ensuring operations and reliability during extreme climatic events. Increasingly robust considerations of economic resilience allow us to anticipate risk, evaluate how that risk can affect our needs, and build a responsive adaptive capacity.
With climate change, terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and species within them, have winners and losers. Those that can adapt are “increasers,” while others cannot, resulting in impacts to traditional services and the livelihoods of the people who depend on those resources. The warming of coastal bay waters has been documented since at least the 1980s, and those increases in water temperature directly affect water quality, leading to hypoxia, harmful algal blooms, and fish kills—thus lowering the productivity and diversity of estuaries. Natural wetlands like the playa lakes in the High Plains, which have served for centuries as important habitat for migrating waterfowl, are virtually nonexistent during drought.
Direct human health threats follow a similar pattern of species within our natural ecosystems. Extreme weather results in both direct and indirect impacts to people; physical injury and population displacement are anticipated to result with climate change. Heat illness and diseases transmitted through food, water, and insects increase human risk as temperature rises. Acute awareness of these future impacts allows us to plan for the most vulnerable and adapt through response plans, health forecasting, and early warning strategies, including those that span transboundary contexts and systems.
The impacts of climate change in general become more acute when considering tribal and Indigenous communities. Resilience to climate change will be hindered by economic, political, and infrastructure limitations for these groups; at the same time, connectivity of the tribes and Indigenous communities offers opportunities for teaching adaptably through their cultural means of applying traditional knowledge and intertribal organization. These well-honed connections of adapting through the centuries may help all of us learn how to offset the impacts and potential challenges of climate change.
Southern Great Plains: Key Messages
- Food, Energy, & Water
Quality of life in the region will be compromised as increasing population, the migration of individuals from rural to urban locations, and a changing climate redistribute demand at the intersection of food consumption, energy production, and water resources. A growing number of adaptation strategies, improved climate services, and early warning decision support systems will more effectively manage the complex regional, national, and transnational issues associated with food, energy, and water.
The built environment is vulnerable to increasing temperature, extreme precipitation, and continued sea level rise, particularly as infrastructure ages and populations shift to urban centers. Along the Texas Gulf Coast, relative sea level rise of twice the global average will put coastal infrastructure at risk. Regional adaptation efforts that harden or relocate critical infrastructure will reduce the risk of climate change impacts.
Terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems are being directly and indirectly altered by climate change. Some species can adapt to extreme droughts, unprecedented floods, and wildfires from a changing climate, while others cannot, resulting in significant impacts to both services and people living in these ecosystems. Landscape-scale ecological services will increase the resilience of the most vulnerable species.
- Human Health
Health threats, including heat illness and diseases transmitted through food, water, and insects, will increase as temperature rises. Weather conditions supporting these health threats are projected to be of longer duration or occur at times of the year when these threats are not normally experienced. Extreme weather events with resultant physical injury and population displacement are also a threat. These threats are likely to increase in frequency and distribution and are likely to create significant economic burdens. Vulnerability and adaptation assessments, comprehensive response plans, seasonal health forecasts, and early warning systems can be useful adaptation strategies.
- Indigenous Peoples
Tribal and Indigenous communities are particularly vulnerable to climate change due to water resource constraints, extreme weather events, higher temperature, and other likely public health issues. Efforts to build community resilience can be hindered by economic, political, and infrastructure limitations, but traditional knowledge and intertribal organizations provide opportunities to adapt to the potential challenges of climate change.
The “Southern Great Plains” publication is available as a downloadable PDF at nca2018.globalchange.gov.