Initial Publication Date: March 8, 2021

2018 NCA Resources for Northern Great Plains


Regional Chapter Editor:

Lee Frankel-Goldwater, PhD Candidate, University of Colorado, Boulder

Chapter Reviewers, 2018:

Adrian Leighton, Salish Kootenai College,, Stacie Blue, Turtle Mountain Community College (TMCC),, Gretchen Mullendore, University of North Dakota, Grand forks,, Dr. Steve Schwarze, University of Montana,, Michele Archie, The Harbinger Consultancy,, Paul Lachapelle, Ph.D., Montana State University, Bozeman,

NCA Education Resources for the Northern Great Plains Region

The National Climate Assessment (NCA) summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States, now and in the future. This report collects, integrates, and assesses observations and research from around the country, helping us to see what is actually happening and understand what it means for our lives, our livelihoods, and our future. It is important that these findings and response options be shared broadly to inform people and communities across our nation. Climate change presents a major challenge for society. This report advances our understanding of that challenge and the need for the American people to prepare for and respond to its far-reaching implications.

It contains information that will help educators and students gain a deeper understanding of climate science through the Our Changing Climate section of the 2018 NCA report and 2017 supporting Climate Science Special Report (CSSR). Engineering is addressed throughout, both from the standpoint of climate change impacts and solutions, however, the Mitigation and Adaptation sections contain the most relevant information. Finally, the Frequently Asked Questions section has useful information as it relates to an Introduction to Climate Change, Climate Science, Temperature and Climate Projections, Climate, Weather, and Extreme Events, Societal Effects, and Ecological Effects.

Chapter Background

"The Northern Great Plains has three distinct regional geographic features associated with a strong east-to-west gradient of decreasing precipitation and a stark rise in elevation at the montane western boundary. The eastern edge of the region includes a humid-continental climate and the Red River Valley, where the capacity to store water is often exceeded, leading to extensive flooding. A large swath of the central Northern Great Plains falls within the Upper Missouri River Basin. Much of this basin is arid to semiarid, and because temperatures and rates of evapotranspiration (the evaporation of water from the soil and transpiration from plants) are so high, only 9% of precipitation ultimately reaches the Missouri River as runoff. For comparison, other basins in the United States yield more than 40% runoff. In the mountainous far western part of the region, including central and western Wyoming and Montana, water dynamics are driven by large seasonal snowpack that accumulates in winter and early spring and provides critical resources for non-montane areas through runoff during the warm season.

These intraregional gradients in precipitation, temperature, and water availability drive east–west differences in land use and climate. The eastern portion of the region is characterized by rainfed row crop agriculture and is often subject to flooding. For example, Devils Lake in North Dakota is a closed basin, meaning that it has no natural outflows. The basin is often so full that it is prone to flooding the communities around it. Separately, the irrigated cropland and grazing lands in the central portion of the Northern Great Plains are critical for U.S. livestock production, yet the arid to semiarid climate is highly variable from year to year, which makes it difficult to manage agriculture, recreation, and cultural resources. The western portion of the region is devoted primarily to native ecosystems used for grazing and recreation, but dryland cropping is also important, and forestry is important in the far-western edge of the region. Coal, oil, and natural gas are produced throughout the Northern Great Plains.

The highly variable climate of the Northern Great Plains poses challenges for the sustainable use of water, land, and energy resources by competing urban, suburban, rural, and tribal populations. Climate change is expected to exacerbate those challenges, which include 1) effectively managing both overabundant and scarce water resources, 2) supporting adaptation of sustainable agricultural systems, 3) fostering conservation of ecosystems and cultural and recreational amenities, 4) minimizing risk to energy infrastructure that is vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather events, and 5) mitigating climate impacts to vulnerable populations." (Complete background and related figures available at NCA, 2018, Northern Great Plains Chapter)

Using this Guide:

The NCA Education Resources for the Northern Great Plains Region features 1) guiding questions, 2) key figures, 3) related chapters from the report, 4) lesson plans, 5) videos for all of the NCA key messages for the region, and 6) related U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit Case Studies. Teachers can have students explore the toolkit case studies to see how people are building resilience for their businesses and in their communities in the region. This page contains information that will help educators and students gain a deeper understanding of climate science and the implications for the region.

Chapter Table of Contents with Section Links:

Key Message 1: Water

Key Message 2: Agriculture

Key Message 3: Recreation and Tourism

Key Message 4: Energy

Key Message 5: Indigenous Peoples

Key Message 1: Water

Water is the lifeblood of the Northern Great Plains, and effective water management is critical to the region's people, crops and livestock, ecosystems, and energy industry. Even small changes in annual precipitation can have large effects downstream; when coupled with the variability from extreme events, these changes make managing these resources a challenge. Future changes in precipitation patterns, warmer temperatures, and the potential for more extreme rainfall events are very likely to exacerbate these challenges.

Key Message 2: Agriculture

Agriculture is an integral component of the economy, the history, and the culture of the Northern Great Plains. Recently, agriculture has benefited from longer growing seasons and other recent climatic changes. Some additional production and conservation benefits are expected in the next two to three decades as land managers employ innovative adaptation strategies, but rising temperatures and changes in extreme weather events are very likely to have negative impacts on parts of the region. Adaptation to extremes and to longer-term, persistent climate changes will likely require transformative changes in agricultural management, including regional shifts of agricultural practices and enterprises.

Key Message 3: Recreation and Tourism

Ecosystems across the Northern Great Plains provide recreational opportunities and other valuable goods and services that are at risk in a changing climate. Rising temperatures have already resulted in shorter snow seasons, lower summer streamflows, and higher stream temperatures and have negatively affected high-elevation ecosystems and riparian areas, with important consequences for local economies that depend on winter or river-based recreational activities. Climate-induced land-use changes in agriculture can have cascading effects on closely entwined natural ecosystems, such as wetlands, and the diverse species and recreational amenities they support. Federal, tribal, state, and private organizations are undertaking preparedness and adaptation activities, such as scenario planning, transboundary collaboration, and development of market-based tools.

Key Message 4: Energy

Fossil fuel and renewable energy production and distribution infrastructure is expanding within the Northern Great Plains. Climate change and extreme weather events put this infrastructure at risk, as well as the supply of energy it contributes to support individuals, communities, and the U.S. economy as a whole. The energy sector is also a significant source of greenhouse gases and volatile organic compounds that contribute to climate change and ground-level ozone pollution.

Key Message 5: Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous peoples of the Northern Great Plains are at high risk from a variety of climate change impacts, especially those resulting from hydrological changes, including changes in snowpack, seasonality and timing of precipitation events, and extreme flooding and droughts as well as melting glaciers and reduction in streamflows.

These changes are already resulting in harmful impacts to tribal economies, livelihoods, and sacred waters and plants used for ceremonies, medicine, and subsistence. At the same time, many tribes have been very proactive in adaptation and strategic climate change planning.

Other Related Resources for the Northern Great Plains Chapter



Disclaimer: The National Climate Assessment regional resources for educators is written, edited, and moderated by each regional team of contributors. Posts reflect the views of the regional team themselves and not necessarily, NOAA and USGCRP.