Last week in this blog I asked a provocative (although facetious) question about whether or not Goodwell Oklahoma is becoming the “New Death Valley.”Again, the answer is no (although it is still REALLY dry out there).Even though we aren’t seeing a new Mojave Desert form in the Panhandle, we are seeing some crazy developments in Oklahoma. It’s the tale of two states—a record wet Southeast Oklahoma and a record dry Northwest Oklahoma with Interstate 44 splitting the state diagonally.
This is not historically normal.Generally, people think of Oklahoma as being divided by interstate 35. For those of you unfamiliar with Oklahoma geography, I-35 runs right down the middle of the main body of the state. This is the normal split between the drier west and the wetter east.I-35 isn’t the only dividing line, however.There is another historical “dry line” that divides Oklahoma—the 100th meridian. The 100th meridian is the line that runs north to south dividing the main body of Oklahoma from its own panhandle and the panhandle of Texas.
I-35 has always split Oklahoma east to west but the 100th meridian has historically split the United States. First established by John Wesley Powell in 1879 as the divide between the east and the west, it has remained the definitive break in the continent ever since. Locations to the east of the 100th receive historically 20+ inches of annual rainfall while locations west of the line received less. Rainfall determines what you can grow without irrigation and how many people can live in a region. That’s a major reason population density drops off at the meridian to around less than 18 people per square mile and why the Ogallala Aquifer is so important to the area’s agriculture.Things definitely change at the 100th meridian. The question now seems to be if that dividing line is slowly moving east.Back in 2018 a team of researchers led by scientists from Columbia University set out to examine how the 100th meridian has played out in history and what the future may hold for the region. Their research confirmed that this divide is indeed real, as reflected by population and agriculture on opposite sides of the line. They also determined that this “dry line” appears slowly to be moving eastward thanks to the changing climate and will probably continue doing so in the coming decades. The Yale School of the Environment even published an article laying out that the dry line now sits roughly at the 98th meridian—about 140 miles or so east of the Oklahoma/Texas panhandle border.So, what does this mean? Is this line moving? Are we seeing a slow-moving change in the climate with long term implications?Well, research seems to indicate that something is indeed happening. And since it’s slow moving and not always obvious it can sneak up on you.It’s kind of like aging (a subject on my mind a lot lately–I’m actually typing this blog with a broken wrist thanks to a pick-up basketball game with my youngest son). The slow march of time has an impact on your body that can manifest itself when you least expect it. In the same way, subtle shifts in the climate can creep up on you if you’re not prepared for them.Just like taking care of your body and being better prepared can help you better deal with the effects of age (trust me—being prepared with athletic shoes for basketball is better than playing pick-up in work boots), planning for the future and managing your farming and ranching operation for whatever nature throws at you will put you in a better place moving forward.As we have said before, check with your local USDA Service Center to see what kind of assistance might be available to better prepare your operation for whatever weather extremes that might be coming. Whether it’s droughts, floods, wildfires or blizzards (or all of the above) it pays to get ahead of the curve…or in this case, the moving dry-line.
Clay Pope is a farmer and rancher from Loyal, Okla., and is working as a consultant to the USDA Southern Plains Climate Hub. He also serves on as a board member of the Oklahoma Wheat Growers Assn. He is former executive director of the Oklahoma Assn. of Conservation Districts.
On this episode of Conservation Ag Update, brought to you by CultivAce, we talk to East Troy, Wis., no-tiller Jim Stute as he wraps up corn harvest. Stute reflects on a challenging year and shares how he was able to conserve moisture with cereal rye.
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