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What the new National Climate Assessment says is in store for Oklahoma

A pasture with native grasses in Northeastern Oklahoma.
Graycen Wheeler
A pasture with native grasses in Northeastern Oklahoma.

Every four years, the U.S. Global Change Research Program must deliver a report to Congress summarizing what scientific data are saying about climate change.

The fifth National Climate Assessment paints a stark picture of imminent, climate-based threats to American lifestyles, livelihoods and even lives.

In Oklahoma, those threats come from all directions. The state is seeing an increase of extreme weather events, a decline in air quality and shrinking water resources.

But the new report isn’t all doom and gloom.

“America is stepping up to meet this moment,” said Arati Prabhakar, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “This assessment covers the last several years. And in that period, communities in every state and territory across the country have taken action.”

Still, the report’s authors urge swift and decisive action to brace for these problems and protect the people, cultures, resources and industries of Oklahoma.

As the climate changes, so will people’s lives

The report shows climate change will reshape people's lives, affect their health and in some cases prove fatal. But there are actions Oklahomans can take to soften the blow.

“Climate change is caused by humans, and so humans can respond by actions that will reverse the trend that we've been seeing and can do it in ways that are meant to make healthier and happier communities,” said Renee McPherson, the lead author of the National Climate Assessment.

In Oklahoma, warming temperatures threaten access to culturally significant species for Indigenous people. Plants like eastern redcedars and saltcedars are creeping into native rangeland and grasslands, throwing ecosystems off-balance.

Climate change is also affecting public health. Warming temperatures extend allergy season, let ticks and mosquitoes stay active longer and increase cardiovascular stress.

The report recommends implementing climate-smart resilience actions like assessing and enhancing the urban tree canopy, breeding drought-tolerant plants and animals, and stopping opportunistic species like eastern redcedars from encroaching.

The economic impact of climate change

Changes to the jet stream could mean even more wind sweeping down the plains. That could increase wind-turbine productivity across western Oklahoma.

But drought is a major threat to Oklahoma’s crops and livestock. According to the report, warmer average temperatures have diminished crop productivity. For example, in the Oklahoma Panhandle, hot, dry, and windy conditions have reduced wheat yields. Extreme heat has also increased labor demands for feeding and keeping livestock hydrated.

The report recommends restoring grasslands and wetlands, increasing green spaces, and educating farmers on alternative agricultural practices.

McPherson also suggests developing commercial-scale carbon capture technologies, perhaps using Oklahoma’s existing oil wells to store carbon underground.

“What we need to do is essentially move carbon capture and storage into an entire new industry that then helps us return our greenhouse gas concentrations to the levels where they were before the industrial Revolution,” she said.

If you can’t stand the heat, get off the field

In the report’s highest carbon emission scenario, Oklahomans living at the end of the 21st century could see 30 to 60 more days with temperatures over 100 degrees every year than we do today. Even in a scenario where global carbon emissions are cut in half by the year 2100, Oklahomans still get 20 to 30 more triple-digit days.

University Of Oklahoma, South Central Climate Adaptation Science Center
National Climate Assessment

Outdoor physical activity becomes more dangerous in extremely hot temperatures. By midcentury, the number of days per year with temperatures at or above 100°F across the Southern Great Plains is projected to increase.

That spells bad news for kids who need to blow off steam outside during recess, highschoolers who need plenty of practice to nab an athletics scholarship and other Oklahomans who just enjoy being outdoors. Sweltering temperatures don’t just make the outdoors unpleasant — heat related deaths have been ticking up across the country.

It’s also harder to thrive when you’re wheezing. Oklahoma has seen an increase in pollutants and allergens in the air over the past decades. Tulsans in 2020 were exposed to 3 times as many allergens as Tulsans in 1987.

More extreme weather events, higher temperatures and worsening air quality will likely push people indoors. According to the report, reliance on indoor facilities could impact sports and recreation and exacerbate socioeconomic health disparities.

“Most of our towns don't have that kind of extra money laying around that they can do that,” McPherson said. “And so these sports are still going to have to be outdoors. Just buying a bunch of bottled water is not the answer, because that also contributes to the problem.”

But McPherson suggests there are solutions that don’t require a ton of resources.

“Just people sitting down and thinking about: are they prepared to change maybe times of the games or have a backup plan if things get too hot?” she said. “I think that this is really an opportunity for a lot of people to think about climate change as something that can actually affect them personally.”

Social and environmental disparities

How vulnerable populations are going to be disproportionately impacted by global warming was also a focus of the report.

These communities tend to have less access to spaces that are tolerable during times of extreme heat and cold and are in areas impacted by the urban heat island effect due to a lack of tree canopy and green spaces. They may also have houses that are less resilient to those extremes or to severe weather. Low-income neighborhoods tend to be closer to heavy polluters as well.

Solutions include storm-proofing low-income homes, planting more trees in urban areas, incentivizing post-disaster job creation, and protecting places that matter to people, like community centers and cultural spaces.

“This is all about creating opportunities for people to get involved and creating resilient communities,” McPherson said.

Bracing our infrastructure

As climate change progresses, the National Climate Assessment anticipates more frequent and costly problems with the services and structures necessary to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

“We think of a heavy rainfall event, for example, as kind of one-and-done," McPherson said. “But there's a lot of things happening in the background within our cities, our wastewater treatment plants, the cleanup that has to go on, people's lives that are disrupted, sports venues that were flooded.”

As extreme temperatures, drought and more frequent flooding put strain on roads, road maintenance and repair costs are expected to climb. But as of right now, Oklahoma’s transportation plans don’t address climate change.

More frequent heavy rainfall events wash sediment and pollutants into reservoirs. The report doesn’t cite boil order data from Oklahoma, but does for Texas, which has seen an increase in boil notices and sewer overflows. That’s in part because of drought-related strain on water sources and infrastructure.

Aging and deficient water and wastewater systems disproportionately affect Indigenous people. The report maps thousands of Indigenous households in Oklahoma with inadequate water and sewer infrastructure.

The Indian Health Service (IHS) maintains a database of American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) homes requiring sanitation facility improvements within IHS service areas. The figure shows sanitation deficiency levels in AI/AN homes across the country ranging from level 2 (capital improvements are necessary to meet domestic sanitation needs) to level 5 (lacks a safe water supply and a sewage disposal system).
Indian Health Service
National Climate Assessment
The Indian Health Service (IHS) maintains a database of American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) homes requiring sanitation facility improvements within IHS service areas. The figure shows sanitation deficiency levels in AI/AN homes across the country ranging from level 2 (capital improvements are necessary to meet domestic sanitation needs) to level 5 (lacks a safe water supply and a sewage disposal system).

The report highlights mitigation solutions like Tulsa’s flood programs, action plans like AdaptOKC, and sustainable infrastructure like Northwest Oklahoma’s large wind farms. But it also points out the need for more investment in preventing and adapting to climate impacts.

Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU.
Britny Cordera has been StateImpact Oklahoma's environment and science reporter since July 2023.