Investigating the impacts of agricultural land use change on regional climate processes in the northern North American Great Plains

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Agriculture


The northern North American Great Plains (NNAGP) is the area defined by the Upper Missouri River Basin and the Canadian Prairies. It is a semi-arid region categorized by large stretches of grassland, pasture, and crops. During the last century and extending to the present day, a standard agricultural practice was to utilize a wheat-summer fallow rotation schedule, where the fields were left unplatted and an herbicide was often applied to keep weeds at bay. Concerns over soil health and profitability have led to the systematic decline of summer fallow, and nearly 116,000 km 2 that used to be fallow during the summer in the 1970s are now planted. An observational analysis discovered that from 1970-2015, during the early warm season, the NNAGP have cooled at -0.18 °C decade -1, nearly the same magnitude as the annual global warming rate. The near-surface atmosphere also moistened, evidenced by a decreasing vapor pressure deficit (VPD) trend, and monthly mean precipitation increased in excess of 8 mm per decade. Monthly mean convective available potential energy (CAPE) increased by 80% at Glasgow, MT and by 35% at Bismarck, ND based on atmospheric sounding observations. To test whether a reduction in summer fallow is responsible for these observed changes, a set of convection-permitting model experiments were performed over the NNAGP. Two sets (4 total) of three-year simulations were driven by ERA5 data with the vegetative fraction adjusted using satellite estimated fallow amounts for 2011 and 1984. The control simulations were extensively validated against an ensemble of observations with large temperature biases in Winter by ~ -3 °C and Summer by ~3°C. The areas where fallow area declined from 1984-2011 were cooler by about 1.5 °C and had a lower VPD by 0.15 kPa compared to where it did not. CAPE increased where fallow declined from 1984-2011 but so did convective inhibition (CIN). These findings insinuate that the observed change to monthly mean precipitation cannot be explained by summer fallow reduction alone. Trends in observed low level moisture transport show that the Great Plains Low Level Jet has been intensifying, bringing increased moisture to the NNAGP and partially responsible for the precipitation increase.




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