Climate change is written in the fields and waters of North Dakota — but trying to pinpoint it is like watching your bonsai tree grow, according to North Dakota State climatologist Adnan Akyuz, who warns it is dangerous science to try and extrapolate too far into the future.
“It really doesn’t change much,” said Akyuz, pointing out that 40 years is not a long time when it comes to climate change.
As the coldest state in the lower 48, North Dakota has an average annual temperature of 40.9 degrees, Akyuz said.
Earth’s average global temperature in 2015 was 58.62 degrees, according to figures released by NASA and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration on Jan. 20. The agencies called it the hottest year since 1880, attributing the record-breaking number to El Nino and man-made global warming.
Though the state’s temperatures are shifting upward, if they increased at the same rate for 40 years while all other states remained the same, North Dakota would still be the fifth coldest state in the lower 48, Akyuz said.
“Not much real change in that sense,” said Akyuz, pointing out that a continuous temperature increase would result in five extra days in the state’s growing season.
The state’s increase in precipitation isn’t as significant as temperature, Akyuz said. If the trend continues, North Dakota’s annual precipitation will only rise 0.14 inches in 40 years.
“This is a very small upward trend,” he said. “You really wouldn’t be able to see average change.”
As to how that bit of extra rain might affect crops, Ransom said it would depend on when it occurred.
“An additional inch in May and June would just be a disaster,” he said. “An additional inch in August would be phenomenally beneficial.”
Average seasonal snowfall will likely increase more than rainfall, Akyuz said.
In 40 years, if it continues at the same rate, Bismarck will see an average of 54.46 inches of snowfall, compared to its current average of 51.2 inches — but those annual amounts of snowfall vary widely from year to year, according to Akyuz.
Assuming the climate continues exactly as predicted, many of these changes in North Dakota won’t be very noticeable, Akyuz said.
“People will acclimate to the current conditions, and they will not be able to see or feel the difference,” he said.
A lack of extreme cold temperatures will likely be one of the more noticeable changes, Akyuz said.
“The folks today already remember that we don’t usually get negative 40s anymore, like we did in the past,” he said. “So that will be felt even more.”
Climate predictions and their repercussions vary significantly from state to state, Akyuz said.
“If you were interviewing somebody from Iowa and Illinois and Missouri, I’m sure the state climatologist of the respective states would be more alarmed,” he said.
The same rise in temperatures that could increase North Dakota’s growing season could have negative results in other states, Akyuz said.
Though Akyuz emphasized that 40 years is a short period of time when it comes to climate, Ransom said a lot could be done in that time regarding agriculture.
It takes about 10 years to develop a new plant variety from start to finish, Ransom added.
“So 40 years, we could, indeed, see changes occurring,” he said. “Because that will allow us to do things today that 10 years from now we would see beneficial effect.”
Baiting for fish
Of course, agriculture is not the only element of the North Dakota landscape that might be affected by climate change. The fishing industry would be significantly impacted by drought — but that is difficult to predict at any time, let alone through the next 40 years.
“Fishing in North Dakota has never been better than what we’ve witnessed the past few years,” said Greg Power, chief of the Fisheries Division of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
“The primary reason for these ample opportunities to catch fish has been the unprecedented wet conditions we’ve experienced statewide since 1993. Drought is by far the No. 1 threat facing North Dakota fishing. How longer-term drought events occur in the future is beyond the scope of any of us biologists.”
“Looking at the climate and making an inference is like watching your bonsai tree grow. It really doesn’t change much.” — Adnan Akyuz, North Dakota State climatologist