Weather and Society Watch
An Assessment of the Climate Information Needs of Oklahoma Decision Makers
by Rachel Riley*
Climate change is often discussed on a global scale but climate impacts are frequently experienced on a local scale. Local, state, tribal, and federal leaders have the ability to influence adaptation and mitigation measures that can address some of the impacts of climate events. However, the decision-makers must be knowledgeable and have access to the appropriate information in order to make sound choices. It is also necessary for climate information providers to understand the needs of their users. Interaction between climate scientists and decision-makers is crucial (U. S. Global Change Research Program 2009a) so that research is fruitful and decision-makers' needs are being met.
The Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) program, conducted a climate information needs assessment for decision-makers in Oklahoma in 2010 and 2011. Twenty-three semi-structured interviews were conducted with representatives from a variety of local (n=3), state (n=10), tribal (n=2), federal (n=6), non-profit (n=1), and private (n =1) agencies. The semi-structured approach allowed for consistent findings across the interviews but also provided participants with the opportunity to focus on the climate-related issues they deemed most important. The participants represented the water resources (n=7), energy (n=2), transportation (n=2), agricultural production (n=5), ecosystems (n=6), human health (n=1), and society/public safety (n=7) sectors. It should be noted that some participants fell into more than one sector.
This study aimed to answer four research questions: 1) What do decision-makers in Oklahoma think are the most significant climate-related issues facing them today?; 2) What do they think are the most significant climate-related issues they will face in the future?; 3) What are the spatial and temporal scales in which they make decisions?; and 4) What do they perceive as their most substantial climate-related research needs? Interviews were recorded and transcribed and the data were analyzed thematically and according to the sectors consistent with the 2009 National Climate Assessment (U.S. Global Change Research Program 2009b). A summary of the findings is presented below.
Current Climate-Related Issues
It was important to get a baseline understanding of how climate currently impacted decision-makers before asking the participants about their future concerns. The participants cited being impacted by numerous climate-related events such as extreme cold, extreme heat, and severe winds. However, the events cited most frequently were flash floods and droughts, followed by water resource issues, ice storms, and tornadoes. Some of the particular issues included power outages resulting from strong winds or ice storms, limited water supply or stunted crop growth due to drought (e.g., Figure 1), buckling roads due to extreme heat, and invasive crop species due to untimely freezes and warmth. Whatever the issue, it was clear that climate has a tremendous impact on the operation of Oklahoma agencies.
Anecdotal Evidence of Change
The participants were asked whether they had noticed any changes in the climate or environment before they were asked how the projected changes in climate would impact them. Some of the participants described changes, but many of them cautioned that their observations were purely anecdotal. A few participants also said they were not sure whether the observed changes were due to changes in climate, land use, or whether their memory was biased toward recent events. One decision-maker also commented how the extreme variability of Oklahoma's climate makes it difficult to know whether it is actually changing.
Despite these caveats, some of the climate changes noted by the participants included an increase in the magnitude and frequency of extreme events, more untimely freezes, and more intense but less frequent rain events. Some participants also remarked about changes in plants, such as a northward shift in plant hardiness zones and invasive species such as red cedar trees, milo, and kudzu taking hold. Changes in wildlife were also cited, such as an increase in the rattlesnake and decrease in roadrunner and jackrabbit populations, and that geese do not migrate like they once did. Figure 2 shows the complete list of changes.
Future Climate-Related Concerns
The projected changes in climate for Oklahoma were described to the participants before they were asked about the most significant climate-related issues they would face in the future. Projections for Oklahoma include more intense but less frequent rain events, an increase in the frequency of hot extremes and heat waves, the warm season becoming longer and arriving sooner, and a decreasing number of cold extremes. More intense but less frequent rain events, which would lead to an increase in flooding rain and drought, was the most commonly cited change that would have the greatest impact.
In a period of drought, competing interests for water (e.g., energy production, drinking, and recreation) mean that problems can arise when water is in short supply. Alternatively, heavy rain and floods deposit sediment into places it should not be, such as reservoirs. This decreases the water storage capacity of the reservoir. Heavy rain and flooding is also abusive to road and bridge infrastructure. A transportation engineer said design equations take shear velocity into account, which is very different for flash flood type events. So, the design equations would need to change if rainfall patterns were to change.
A lengthening growing season would produce tradeoffs for the agriculture sector. On one hand, a warmer climate would mean that crops would have more time to grow. Alternatively, a warmer climate would also be conducive to invasive pests, which can be problematic for agriculture producers. Lengthening warm seasons also impact wildlife. One biologist noted that temperature changes can alter the timing of incubation. If the air temperature is warm enough to incubate a hen's egg before she is ready to sit on it, unsynchronized hatching might occur and the hen would not be able to take care of all her chicks.
Scales of Decision-Making
If climate projections are to be useful to decision-makers, they should be presented in a way that is consistent with the temporal and spatial scales that are useful for planning activities. To this end, the participants were asked about their maximum planning timescales. The participants in all but two of the seven sectors cited a maximum horizon of 15 years or less. And even though comprehensive planning occurs on this scale, the bulk of their planning focused on one to five years in the future. The transportation and water resource sectors have a longer planning horizon—50 and 100 years respectively. These two sectors build and maintain large, expensive infrastructure such as dams, reservoirs, bridges, and highways, so they have to make sure that the infrastructure lasts a long time.
One reason that decision-maker planning timescales are shorter than one might expect is because climate is just one of many variables that decision-makers have to consider. Some sectors such as agriculture are also extremely sensitive to the variability of the climate and cannot afford to have a long planning horizon. As one agricultural participant noted, from the perspective of a producer, “I can't worry about what's happening 10 years from now. If I'm still not making money two to three years from now I'm gone.”
Spatially, the most commonly cited scale needed for climate projections was regional within the state. While some participants wished they could have city-scale climate projections, they realized that would not be feasible. The agricultural participants said climate projections would not be useful to them unless they are provided at the city/farm scale, with one reason being the extremely variable precipitation in Oklahoma. The precipitation is often very localized, and crop producers need model projections to have a very high spatial resolution for them to be usable. Moreover, t he participants in the agriculture and water resources sectors were primarily interested in river basin and sub-basin scales as opposed to scales based on political boundaries. Information also needs to extend beyond the Oklahoma state boundaries, since decision-makers often work across those boundaries or need to prepare for changes occurring in other parts of the country that might impact them in the future.
One of the most substantial research needs, aside from providing decision-makers with model projections on the scales that are useful to them, was to determine the critical thresholds that are used for decision-making or taking action. Morss et al. (2011) also came to this conclusion. For example, a critical threshold might include the temperature at which a crop no longer grows or the rain rate at which substantial flooding occurs in a city. Meteorologists and climatologists have ideas about what thresholds are important (e.g. 100 ° F, 57 mph winds) but information is valuable to decision-makers only when it is presented in a way that is consistent with the point(s) at which they take action.
Another need that surfaced across numerous sectors was the need to understand changes in second order variables such as evaporation rates, soil temperature and moisture, days near or below freezing, or air pollutant levels, as opposed to just first order variables like precipitation and temperature. Temperature and precipitation trends are too abstract for many decision-makers to be able to understand how climate change might impact them.
The points discussed here only provide a summary of the wealth of knowledge gained through this study on the climate-related needs of decision-makers in Oklahoma. While the attempt was made to gather as in-depth information as possible across a variety of sectors in Oklahoma, the assessment was not comprehensive nor is it generalizable to all Oklahoma decision-makers. Yet, it provides a stepping stone to begin to understand the climate-related issues that Oklahoma decision-makers are dealing with and/or might deal with in the future, and insight into how the climate community might be able to better serve them.
*Rachel Riley (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a research associate for the Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program in Norman, Okla.
Morss, R. E., O. V. Wilhelmi, G. A. Meehl, and L. Dilling, 2011: Improving societal outcomes of extreme weather in a changing climate: An integrated perspective . Annual Review of Environment and Resources , 36 , 1-25.
U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2009a: Climate literacy: The essential principles of climate sciences , version 2. 17 pp.
U. S. Global Change Research Program, 2009b: T. R. Karl, J. M. Melillo, and T. V. Peterson, Eds. Global climate change impacts in the United States . New York: Cambridge University Press.
Figure 2: Summary of anecdotal changes in climate, plants and wildlife as described by the study participants