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318  Thinking the Unthinkable Climate Change Hits the Vulnerable Plains Given the high stakes, it is valuable to understand not just what is most likely to happen, but what might possibly happen to our climate. There is a possibility that temperatures will rise much higher and impacts will be much worse than expected. Moreover, as global temperature rises, the risk increases that one or more important parts of the Earth’s climate system will experience changes that may be abrupt, unpredictable , and potentially irreversible, causing large damages and high costs.| American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2013 People across the old Dust Bowl region of Kansas and the OklahomaTexas panhandle wondered if the drought of 2009–15 would ever end. The year 2012 was the warmest on record since 1895. In the span of five years, Texas saw its second-driest year and its record wettest year.¹ These weather extremes have long been predicted as a sign of climate change. A climate phenomenon called La Niña is the culprit for droughts and high temperatures in the panhandle country of Texas. It is a climate event that couples oceanic and atmospheric phenomena over thousands of square miles. It does not begin in the panhandle or even close to it. Scientists call it the “equatorial cold tongue,” a band of cool water that extends along the equator from the coast of South America to the central Pacific Ocean. The sea surface temperature will be lower by 3–5 degrees Celsius in the band than in surrounding waters. Sea surface temperatures in this region of the Pacific Ocean bring tropical rainfall, which redirects the jet stream around the world. One version of La Niña, called cp-La Niña or La Niña Modoki, is more severe and long lasting, and it has been associated with climate thinking the unthinkable 319 change. The panhandle stands directly in the path of La Niña and receives less rain for the naturally parched region. nasa and noaa global climate modeling almost invariably have placed the central and southern High Plains in harm’s way. Hot, dry, cloudless weather has already been commonplace. The devastating droughts of the 1930s and 1950s are characteristics of this global phenomenon. Multiple studies correlated by Stanford researcher Stephen Schneider have indicated that the old Dust Bowl region (Arkansas-White-Red River basin) is the fourth most vulnerable to greenhouse impacts in the nation (after the Great Basin, the Missouri basin, and California) because of extreme water consumption, extreme climate variability, and groundwater loss.² While the greenhouse effect would not be uniform across the globe, the United States would have specific “winners” and “losers,” and the old Dust Bowl region is always listed as a “loser.” The region seemed particularly lost climatically in the second decade of the twenty-first century. In 2011 La Niña persisted through the entire year. Three-month temperature averages were 86.7 degrees for Texas and 86.9 for Oklahoma.³ Texas was ravaged by exceptional drought for most of that year. It had only 2.66 inches of rain in the critical spring season and a total of only 14.8 inches for the entire year.⁴ Jake Crouch of noaa reported that the “spring, summer, and autumn of 2011 were so warm and dry that it took until the spring of 2015—nearly four years—for the region to even come close to recovering. Over the course of the four years, small-scale precipitation events brought some short-term drought relief, but longer-term precipitation deficits added up, as did the impacts.”⁵ Rains returned in the winter and spring of 2012 and in the summer of 2013, but La Niña persisted as a strong force in early 2014. Seventy percent of Texas was still under drought conditions well into 2015; 21 percent of the state persisted in the worst two stages of drought.⁶ The impact of this bone-dry cycle of extreme heat, low humidity, and a hot, dry wind forced more furious groundwater pumping, which led during 2011–12 to an average Ogallala decline of 2.56 feet, compared to a “normal” decline of 0.81 feet. Six of the sixteen counties in the High Plains Water District recorded more than an average decline of 320 thinking the unthinkable 3 feet, while seventeen district wells recorded declines of 10 feet and one well recorded a decline of 25.35 feet.⁷ Soil moisture went into de...


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