Michael Peters is crouched in the red Okarche dirt in what should have been an abounding, chest-high field of hay. But the field is patchy, and what remains fails to even reach his knee.
High temperatures and a lack of rain this year have stunted Peters’ crops.
He lost roughly one-third of his wheat, significantly reducing his income. And what remains of his hay won’t grow tall enough to be bailed and sold. It can’t be fed to his cows either, as the nitrate levels are so high it would kill them.
“You’ve definitely got some decisions you have to make,” he said. “The biggest fear right now is where the money is going to come from to plant the next crop.”
The pastures where his 350 head of cattle graze are also in rough shape due to the drought. When the grass dies, the cattle need to be fed manually, which requires lots of driving. With gas prices still hovering around $4 per gallon in western Oklahoma, it can get costly — not to mention the extra cost of feed.
Although Oklahoma is no stranger to the occasional dry spell, climatologists predict droughts will grow more frequent and severe in the future due to climate change. Scientists say the state is slowly becoming hotter and dryer with increasingly erratic patterns of precipitation. And the average number of 100-degree Fahrenheit days that Oklahoma sees each year will more than triple by mid-century if humans don’t take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, climate models predict.
“For this individual drought, you probably can’t say it is due to climate change. But you might be able to say it was exacerbated by climate change,” said Gary McManus, Oklahoma’s state climatologist.
The Earth’s warming may have caused a run-of-the-mill drought, spurred by natural variation in rainfall, to become more extreme, he said.
A hot, dry year hits Oklahoma hard
It’s been a challenging year for wheat producers across the state, said Mike Schulte, Director of the Oklahoma Wheat Commission.
“Some places were completely and totally devastated, where producers just never harvested anything,” he said.
The yield from Oklahoma’s wheat harvest— the state’s second-largest agricultural export—is down 30% from last year. And farmers in Southwestern Oklahoma and the Panhandle have seen even steeper declines in production due to extreme dryness, Schulte said.
These conditions have made it a hard year for Keeff Felty, a fourth-generation farmer in Altus. Some of his wheat was harvestable. But his dryland cotton—normally harvested in the fall—has already failed.
The drought’s impact hasn’t only been limited to farmers. Water rationing has been ordered in some parts of the state, heat-related emergencies have surged, and Governor Stitt has activated the Oklahoma Air National Guard to help fight wildfires.
Some Oklahoma ranchers have also begun selling their cattle early due to dying grass and dried-up ponds. And Schulte said that consumers will see higher prices for wheat products in the fall.
Climate change and worsening heat
Oklahoma’s current drought is spotted with “the fingerprints of climate change,” says Professor Jason Furtado, a researcher at the University of Oklahoma School of Meteorology. However, he notes scientists don’t know exactly how much climate change has contributed.
“But, our temperatures are increasing, our base level climatology is increasing, so yes, it’s contributing to this.”
Western Oklahoma has seen consistently higher temperatures since the late 90s, warming over 1 degree Fahrenheit in just over 30 years.
Average annual temperature in Western Oklahoma from 1895 to 2021, averaged across different temperature-measuring sites across the region. SOURCE: Oklahoma Climatological Survey
Professor Renee McPherson, a climatologist at OU, says increased temperatures create dry conditions by causing water to evaporate from the soil and leading plants to transfer their water back into the atmosphere.
“There’s a vicious feedback loop where, as the soils get drier, the sun can heat the ground more efficiently, which causes temperatures to rise,” Furtado said. “And as temperatures rise, that forces more water out of the ground. And without anything to replenish it, you develop this cycle which we’re in now.”
Scientists from the South Central Climate Adaptation Science Center at OU, lead by McPherson, predict that this drought-causing heat will only become more common in the future.
Oklahoma now experiences an average of 10 days above 100 degrees Fahrenheit per year, according to state data. Scientists at OU predict the number will increase to an average 35 days a year by mid-century. Southwestern Oklahoma could experience as many as 55 days a year over 100 degrees.
To produce these models, researchers use methods that have correctly foreseen past changes in Oklahoma’s climate to predict general conditions in the future.
The models assume greenhouse gas levels will continue increasing at the current pace, trapping heat inside the Earth’s atmosphere. But if humans take steps to significantly reduce greenhouse gasses, including reducing the use of fossil fuels, the state is predicted to experience about 20 days above 100 degrees per year by mid-century.
The map on the right depicts a scenario between 2036 and 2065 if greenhouse gasses continue increasing at their current rate. The map on the right assumes emissions are significantly slowed. SOURCE: South Central Climate Projections Evaluation Project (C-PrEP), South Central Climate Adaptation Science Center
The models also predict that Oklahoma’s average temperature will rise by about 5 degrees by mid-century if greenhouse gas levels continue to rise, or 2.5 degrees if levels are reduced.
Changing precipitation patterns
Researchers say more erratic precipitation patterns, which climate change has helped cause, are also creating longer dry spells.
“What we have seen are these oscillations going back and forth between extremes in precipitation on the wet side, and extremes in precipitation on the dry side,” said Professor Jeffery Basara, a researcher at OU who has studied Oklahoma’s changing patterns in rainfall.
Oklahoma might be getting about the same amount of rain per year, but the state is seeing longer dry periods in between wet periods.
“Increasingly, we are getting more of our rain in shorter periods of time,” Furtado said, and it is coming more intensely.
Oklahoma has seen drastic swings in precipitation in recent years — 2015 was the state’s wettest year on record. “And yet at the same time we’ve had all these dry periods recently as well,” like the drought of 2011 and now 2022, Basara said. “That actually is something different that we’ve seen in our climate record that we haven’t seen in the past.”
While Peters and Felty expressed general skepticism towards climatologists, noting that droughts have always been part of Oklahoma’s climate, they both said they have noticed differences in rain patterns.
“There’s definitely some changes going on,” Peters said. “It seems like when it rains, it does rain more.”
Felty made a similar observation.
“We had a little rain in June, but it was like 6 inches that all came in an hour,” he said.
Changes to the jet stream — a high-altitude stream of wind that circles the globe and brings Oklahoma rain — are some of a few causes behind the variance in rainfall, McPherson said.
Cold air from the North Pole clashes with hot air from the equator to create the jet stream. But, due to climate change, the poles have warmed faster than the equator, causing the jet stream to weaken. This has caused more erratic weather patterns and unpredictable rains.
Extra heat in the atmosphere also creates more rising air, “making those puffy little cumulus clouds that you often see on summer afternoons that can turn into big thunderstorms,” McPherson said. With warming temperatures, rain is more likely to fall more intensely when it does come.
Soil to sand
What are now considered drought conditions in Oklahoma will slowly become permanent, giving rise to a new normal.
“I always like to say Oklahoma sits on a razor’s edge,” said Basara, sharply separating the dry, desert-laden Western United States from the wet, forest-covered East. But, due to the planet’s warming, the arid climate of the West is slowly beginning to expand east toward Oklahoma, he said.
One study found that central Oklahoma is about as dry today as the more arid Western border of the state was in 1980. Given that Oklahoma weather varies day to day, large-scale changes can be hard to detect. But, OU scientists predict that this trend will become more pronounced in the future.
The map on the right depicts a scenario where greenhouse gasses continue increasing at their current rate. The map on the left depicts a scenario where the rate of greenhouse gasses being added to the atmosphere is significantly slowed. SOURCE: South Central Climate Projections Evaluation Project (C-PrEP), South Central Climate Adaptation Science Center.
Oklahoma’s annual rainfall will drop by up to 15% and that the average dry period will last 3-4 days longer by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions continue on at their current rate, according to OU climatologists.
With less rainfall, Western Oklahoma is at risk of desertification by the end of the century, a process that gradually turns soil to sand, transforming pastures into infertile deserts. This occurs when climates become too dry to support the bacteria and fungi that break down rock into soil.
“It's not going to be something quick, or a switch that flips. It’ll just slowly become harder for grass to grow in those regions,” McPherson said.
Adapting to changing conditions
Experts say there are multiple ways Oklahoma can adapt to and help mitigate changing climate conditions.
Schulte is hopeful innovation in agriculture can help farmers become more resilient. In 1996, a similar drought caused a near total loss for Oklahoma wheat growers. Innovations in agriculture over the past two decades including efficient water use, more drought-tolerant wheat varieties, and no-till practices that increase soil health would have minimized those crop losses, he said.
“So it’s really kind of remarkable that we have as high a yield as we had,” Schulte said. “And a lot of that is due to more modernized practices.”
Farming methods that improve soil health could also help to stave off desertification, McPherson said.
But scientists say reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses in the Earth’s atmosphere would help prevent long-term changes to Oklahoma’s climate from occurring in the first place.
“My hope is that, decades from now, people look back to this article and say, ‘Ah see what she said about really bad conditions? That was wrong. It didn't happen,’” McPherson said. “I would love to be wrong. But the best way to do that is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified a plant. It has been corrected.
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