How might climate change affect North Dakota?

Average Temperature Plot

Most mornings, before heading off to the office or school, my family sits down to have breakfast together. Oftentimes our breakfast consists of cereal or toast and a glass of juice. Budget-conscious, as many families are, we typically purchase off-brands and bulk versions of our breakfast items to save a little extra at the register. We can't always predict when the costs associated with growing the grains that make up our favorite cereals might influence the prices we see at the grocery store, so we take precautions to stock up when something goes on sale and do our best to buffer ourselves against unexpected price hikes.

North Dakota farmers think about their crops in a similar way. They can't always predict how weather patterns or economic changes will affect their crop season, so they take precautions to buffer themselves against volatile changes as best they can. In the past, favorable climatic conditions have made North Dakota a great location to grow crops for many of the foods you and I consume, grains for cereals and waffles, and seeds for vegetable oils. However, climatic conditions are changing. In the last 100 years, the average temperature near Bismark increased 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit. Girl with CattailsThe average temperature is expected to continue increasing over the next 100 years, by approximately 3 degrees Fahrenheit on average in the summer and 4 degrees Fahrenheit on average in other seasons. Precipitation predictions are more variable for North Dakota but the number of days facing extreme heat or extreme forms of precipitation are expected to increase with increasing temperatures.

Given that North Dakota has 90% of its land in agricultural production, is the nation's leading producer of wheat, and a major producer of barley, hay, oats and sunflowers, it is important that farmers are aware of and begin to plan for expected climate changes. Changing climates may not provide the same favorable growing conditions in coming years and it will be a challenge for farmers to continue to produce their crops in the same ways they have before. Adjusting practices is likely to come with a price for farmers and all of us whom buy their crops. You and I can make changes in our lifestyles now to help mitigate future climate change and reduce the impacts on future farmers and food prices nationwide.

What does this mean for North Dakota National Wildlife Refuges?

Archery North Dakota

In addition to agriculture, North Dakota is widely recognized as a great place to find waterfowl. Whether you're bird watching or hunting, you won't be disappointed when you visit the prairie pothole region to look for birds. Massive flocks of white pelicans, snow geese, and puddle ducks draw people to the state in droves. In 2001, waterfowl hunters brought an estimated $44 million to the state and in 2006, bird watchers brought in $23 million.

North Dakota boasts 63 National Wildlife Refuges, the largest number in any state, in large part to provide habitat for their vast populations of birds. The Refuges are an important network of lakes, rivers, and prairie potholes that waterfowl, and other wildlife, depend on. The prairie potholes draw millions of birds to North Dakota every summer to breed and raise their families. Concern is growing, however, that these potholes, and other water resources throughout North Dakota, will be adversely affected by climatic changes projected for the state. Rising average temperatures means increased evaporation and potential for many potholes to dry up or fill up with vegetation and become "dry marshes" instead of open water. Stream flows are expected to decrease and smaller reservoirs are anticipated to suffer the most. The changes in water resources as a result of rising temperatures will undoubtedly influence the types and numbers of waterfowl and other birds that come to North Dakota each year.


Evidence suggests that rising temperatures are already having adverse effects on American white pelicans at the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge. These birds are beginning to arrive in North Dakota several weeks earlier than in the past, which means they are also breeding and hatching chicks earlier. The result is that baby chicks are getting hit by severe spring storms and dying in large numbers. The spring storms, in combination with an increased prevalence of West Nile virus, has drastically lowered the survival rate of pelican chicks from an average of 50 percent to, in recent years, 3-4 percent.

Preparing for changes in average temperatures, bird populations, loss of water resources and increased risk of more intense wildfires are just some of the management challenges facing the staff of North Dakota's National Wildlife Refuges as the climate shifts. The staff will have their hands full as they figure out ways to adapt their management practices to restore and conserve fish and wildlife populations "for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans". You can help by participating in Project BudBurst at your local Refuge. By tracking the plants at the Refuge and recording when phenophases are occurring for those plants, you can help Refuge staff determine what changes are occurring. Are Prairie roses blooming earlier? Are Maximillian sunflowers dispersing their seeds later? You can help Refuge staff answer these questions and more when you participate in BudBurst at the Refuges.


Photos courtesy of North Dakota National Wildlife Refuges

Plains and Prairie Potholes Landscape Conservation Cooperative. September 2010. USFWS.

Global Warming and Songbirds, North Dakota. 2002. American Bird Conservancy and National Wildlife Federation.

Climate Change and North Dakota. EPA 1998.

Morse, Susan. June 2011. North Dakota: Climate and Disease Take Toll on American White Pelicans. USFWS.

Johnson, W.C. et al. 2005. Vulnerability of Northern Prairie Wetlands to Climate Change. Bioscience. Vol. 55, Issue 10, pp.863-872.

Economic Impacts of Climate Change on North Dakota. September 2008. University of Maryland Center for Integrative Environmental Research.

Rising to the Urgent Challenge: Strategic Plan for Responding to Accelerating Climate Change. September 2010. USFWS.

Temperature Data for North Dakota from the U.S. Climate Data website.