Last week, Martha Shulski was talking about what she knows best.
Rainfall and drought. Heat and cold. Past weather and future weather and what it all means.
As always, the state climatologist tailored her message to her audience, which in this case was made up of irrigators who had gathered in Fort Collins to talk water.
She planned to talk about climate in the short term — seasonal outlooks, managing surface water, and a bit about our changing climate, too, she said on the eve of her Friday talk.
The 44-year-old has been Nebraska’s climatologist for three years; a climatologist for 17. She’s the director of the State Climate Office and an associate professor in the School of Natural Resources at UNL.
So she has the credentials.
And she’s often asked to share what she knows, which means she was tolerant of a newspaper reporter’s many questions, which are best summed up as: IS THE WORLD COMING TO AN END IN 2050?
While I have zero scientific credentials when it comes to global warming and climate change, I do have a propensity to panic. But I’m also pretty smart and I rely on science — and scientists — to help me understand what’s happening on my home planet and why.
Shulski knows her stuff. (She grew up in Southeast Nebraska and a tornado scare when she was 7 led to a lifelong fascination with weather.)
Last month, she laid out Nebraska’s changing climate in a six-page paper, using data from the country’s fourth national climate assessment. (Overall assessment: Climate Change is Real and Happening Now.)
That change was visible on color-coded maps showing how Nebraska’s climate has warmed over the past century and (breaking news) at an ever-increasing rate in the past 30 years.
For example: Today, low temperatures are higher (by 2.2 degrees) and highs are higher (by 1.1 degrees) than they were in the late 1800s.
And that’s a rate that will likely accelerate.
“By mid-century average temperatures in Nebraska are expected to be 2 to 5 degrees warmer than they are now,” Shulski wrote.
We can expect hotter summer days and warmer winter days and an expanded growing season. Periodically wetter, too, with the possibility of more gully-washing downfalls in our future (a 15 percent to 35 percent increase in heavy precipitation days by mid-century).
As a homeowner with a leaky basement, I found the data fascinating. As a Nebraskan who treasures food and farmers, I found the data disturbing.
I’m not the only one.
Shulski is asked to speak about climate change an average of 15 or 20 times a year, she said. A number that has doubled in the past five years.
She talks to Rotary Clubs and agricultural groups and student groups and at conferences like the one she attended last week.
The mother of two sons, also teaches Climate Change 101 at UNL and has 50 students enrolled in this spring’s course, a number that has grown steadily since 2010, her first year teaching it.
She doesn’t meet as many climate change deniers these days, Shulski said.
“People want to know how climate change will impact them specifically,” she said. “They want to know what they can do.”
So those irrigators want to know how a hot, dry summer and a longer growing season will impact crops (and livestock) and the amount of water they will need at a time when Rocky Mountain snowpack is continuing to decline.
“April is getting wetter, that trend is expected to increase. Can you get equipment into the field? Can you plant when you want to?”
Towns and cities are looking ahead, too, and Shulski is working with a dozen municipalities to plot the best ways to navigate changing climate.
For example: “Will the well field in Ashland be sufficient in a warmer world?”
The effects of climate change make a complex equation and require myriad methods of attack.
“There’s not one specific solution, it’s going to take human grassroots efforts and larger policy level decisions.”
And Shulski has practical (and wise) advice for the average earth-dweller:
Engage your mind. (Her 101 students are assigned “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change.”)
The debate between climate change deniers and the 99 percent of scientists isn’t an equal one. (“Climate change is here. It’s happening and it’s here, it’s not in the distant future.”)
Humans and human activity are the primary cause of the trouble we are in. (“Greenhouse gases caught in the atmosphere are warming the Earth.”)
Weather is what happened today and climate is the aggregate of weather over time. (Don’t let a cold spell in July fool you.)
Vote for candidates who take climate change seriously.
Vote with your dollars. (The food you buy, where you invest your money.)
Learn about your carbon footprint and ways to reduce it. (Seek out Nebraska resources — extension offices, natural resource districts, health officials, college professors.)
By the way, state climatologists are a good resource, too.
Especially Nebraska’s, who is often is asked: How do you stay hopeful?
She ticks off the reasons: Her engaged young students. The surge in citizen interest. The cities and companies who remained committed to change after the Trump administration pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord.
And one more: We must be. “Essentially, we don’t have a choice but to be hopeful.”