Photo of 2019 flood by Offut Air Force Base
An aerial view of Offutt Air Force Base and the surrounding areas affected by flood waters March 17, 2019. An increase in water levels of surrounding rivers and waterways caused by record-setting snowfall over the winter in addition to a large drop in air pressure caused widespread flooding across the state of Nebraska. Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force TSgt. Rachelle Blake

By David Berman, Cody Frederick and John Zurcher

Globally, the alarm bells are being sounded on climate change. 

In August, a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change laid out the already irreversible impacts of climate change, which United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called a “code red for humanity.”

Nebraska is already feeling the impacts of climate change by experiencing extreme weather events over the past few years. In 2019, the state was devastated by flooding that left many farmers’ land underwater.

Throughout the fall, wildfires ravaged land in the state’s panhandle. On Feb. 15 and 16 of 2021, Lincoln experienced record low temperatures. On Sept. 27 of this year, Lincoln experienced a record high of 94 degrees.

Dawn Kopacz, an assistant professor of practice in earth and atmospheric science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said these events are not surprising to scientists.

While Lincoln didn’t experience the flooding the rest of Nebraska did in 2019, the city has taken steps to prepare for a significant flooding event. Lincoln’s Climate Action Plan was spoken about at UNL’s 2021 Sustainability Summit. Video by Cody Frederick/NNS.

“Models have predicted this for a while, and I think we’re starting to sort of see it play out in reality that under a warming climate scenario,” Kopacz said. “We can expect to see these fluctuations between really heavy rain events and drought periods.”

So how bad will the effects of climate change be? Kopacz said in terms of temperatures, Nebraska will likely be a lot closer to the Texas climate in 50 years.

Ellen Paparozzi, a horticulture professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said some horticulturalists believe that the extreme cold last February caused a mass production of flowers on trees last spring — also known as overbearing. The trees were actively growing at the time and recognized internally the extreme drop in temperatures.

“It’s possible that with what we’ve seen…the environment affected the genetic mechanism that said this is the time to flower,” Paparozzi said. 

An overbearing tree can be viewed as a positive the first year when it’s in full bloom and all of the squirrels and other animals have plenty to eat, Paparozzi said, but the negatives are usually clear the following year when the trees’ flower production is lower than on average.

Nebraska experienced record-breaking cold temperatures last winter. The ramifications of those temperatures could rear their head next spring when trees likely won’t flower as much as normal. Video by Cody Frederick/NNS.

Trees are useful to combat climate change, not only with their carbon dioxide uptake but also by providing reduced temperatures around them. 

“People sit underneath a shade tree for good reason,” Paparozzi said. “It’s a lot cooler there and that lowers the temperature of the environment.”

Another way to combat climate change is controlled environment agriculture, which allows year-round growth. This can be accomplished through plant growth in a greenhouse or other building structure. Paparozzi has worked in this area for 11 years with a n group called NE 1835 that advocates for controlled environment agriculture and said she feels there needs to be more effort toward developing it for farmers. 

Professor Ellen Paparozzi is a believer in CEA, otherwise known as controlled environment agriculture. If more farmers were growing year-round, more CO2 would be used, lessening the effect of global warming. Video by Cody Frederick/NNS.

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Farmers with greenhouses are capable of producing food all year while the outdoor growing season ends, meaning Nebraska field crop farmers could grow produce through the winter. Photo by Cody Frederick/NNS.

Some Nebraska farmers and residents are slow to accept climate change. Martha Shulski, a professor of applied climate science in the School of Natural Resources at UNL, has been looking into the reasons why there may be a refusal of climate change in the state.  

“About six years ago I was invited to talk to a group of farmers connected with the Nebraska Farm Bureau,” Shulski said. “They were not at all open to listening to my words on climate change and how it could directly affect agriculture in the state of Nebraska.” 

A few years later it came as a surprise when she was invited back to talk to the same people who scoffed at her comments years before. 

“When I came back to talk to the Nebraska Farm Bureau, the minds of these farmers had shifted completely,” Shulski said. “Almost everybody in that room listened to what I had to say. These Nebraska farmers were open to the idea that climate change was affecting their livelihoods in some way. They wanted to know how they could help. It was refreshing.”

Shulski has seen the data about residents in Nebraska believing in climate change. It is lower than in many other states, but she knows there is beginning to be a shift in the way people do think about the problem. In the data below, Shulski shows what may happen in the future if people don’t take action to stop climate change. It also shows the percentage of people in each state that believe in climate change.

For example, the percentage of Nebraskans who accept global warming as a real threat is 66%. The state with the largest proportion of people who accept climate change is real, California, has a percentage of people around 85%. Also, 52% of Nebraskans believe that climate change is caused by humans. Only 35% of Nebraskans believe that climate change will harm them personally. Only 33% of Nebraskans actually talk about climate change.

Nebraskans Perceptions - As climate change continues to cause greater impacts in Nebraska, experts search for solutions
Nebraskans showed much less belief in climate change compared to other states. Graph by John Zurcher/NNS, data provided by Martha Shulski

Nebraska is home to two different kinds of agriculture. On the east side of the state, corn and soybean production is the predominant form of agriculture. On the west side of the state, looking west of North Platte, livestock is the most predominant form of agriculture. Shulski said the communication on the effects of climate change must be tailored to different populations of farmers to get across the urgency of the matter.

“We must communicate with our farmers in different ways depending on where they live in the state,” Shulski said. “In the eastern part there must be dialogue on how climate change is and will affect crop production and the land. In the west part of the state there must be dialogue on the effects climate change has on large ranches and their livestock.”

Kopacz said that in her opinion, scientists are partially to blame for people’s unwillingness or inability to accept or believe climate change. The very first signs of global warming were in the Arctic, she said, with melting ice caps. That’s a very abstract concept for somebody in Nebraska, so she said it’s important to provide more context on how climate change will impact their lives directly.

Scientists first talked about climate change to the public when the ice caps in the Arctic were melting. Kopacz believes they should have related it more to what local people in Nebraska were experiencing. Video by Cody Frederick/NNS.

But while some farmers don’t believe in climate change, others have turned to science and their own observations. Tom Keig, a soybean and corn farmer in Auburn, Nebraska, said his long experience as a Nebraska farmer — over 28 years — has contributed to his belief in climate change.

“I definitely believe that it’s happening,” Keig said. “And I want to attest that’s just out of experience. My age is my main backup for that. I can’t use a lot of empirical data or anything like that to really make that statement, but I’ve read enough and heard enough of real scientific data.”

Although self-described as not really connected with others in the Nebraska farming community, Keig said farmers he knows are noticing the effects of climate change. He said he’s seen various seminars and programs about climate change offered to farmers, like those hosted by Nebraska Extension.

“It’s very dependent on whose attitude you’re talking to, but a lot of people are concerned about it,” he said. “Especially when they see the negative effects of it from time to time. They might not blame it on climate change, but they are at least making note of the fact that some of the stuff is negatively affecting them.”

Ryan Pekarek, owner of Pekarek’s Produce in Dwight, Nebraska, since 2004, is another farmer whose livelihood has been impacted by climate change. He echoed Keig’s observations about climate change. 

In August, for example, 9 inches of rain hit his farm, which helped some crops like soybeans but hurt crops like cantaloupe.

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Unexpected climate events can have an impact on crop yields for farmers like Pekarek. “Everybody thinks the weather’s getting wacko,” Pekarek said. Photo by David Berman/NNS

“We get big rains when we don’t normally get big rains, or it will be hot when it’s not supposed to be hot,” Pekarek said. “It seems like the weather does what it’s not supposed to do.”

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Soybean damage near Dwight, Nebraska due to flooding in early June. Photo courtesy of Ryan Pekarek.

Pekarek said he hasn’t noticed many educational resources in the state for farmers to learn more about climate change.

“Lots of people don’t think it’s going on,” he said.

Keig said he feels the summers are getting longer and that fall and spring are getting shorter. When he started farming, he said most farmers would start planting in late April, and now that timeline has moved to late March. 

“If you don’t get planted fairly early and get the plants at least a half to three quarters of a way through their growing cycle, they will get very stunted and won’t produce much grain when the drier part of the summer shows up now,” he said. “That extra amount of heat when we do get rain will dry out the fields much faster as well.”

Another change in Nebraska climate might actually be a short term benefit, as slightly warmer winters make it easier for farmers to do field work year round. 

“A lot more guys are going out in the middle of winter and doing field work when they can, whereas when I was younger, once it snowed and the ground became frozen, everyone quit until spring,” Keig said. “So, it’s strangely giving more opportunities to do work.”

Whether or not farmers accept that climate change is real, experts are now trying to find ways to mitigate the effects already felt and prevent more harmful consequences down the road. Kopacz said what comes next all depends on the choices humans make. 

“If we just continue doing what we’re doing, then the change is pretty extreme,” Kopacz said. “If we cut back on fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy, then we’re slowing the rate that carbon dioxide is going into the atmosphere and we slow the rate of warming, then you have a little bit more moderate change. Either way, for how much CO2 we put into the atmosphere, we’re going to see some warming.”