I was born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas and Arkansas is undoubtedly the place I know best. The state nickname is The Natural State as it boasts some of the most beautiful scenery in the nation such as the Ozark National Forest, Petit Jean State Park, and the Buffalo River. Several of Arkansas’s major industries (agriculture, forestry, and outdoor tourism) rely on the health and stability of its environment. Unfortunately, the Natural State is already seeing the effects of climate change and adverse impacts will only worsen as climate change continues.
Agriculture is Arkansas’s biggest industry, contributing $16 billion annually to the state’s economy with 36% of state land dedicated to farmland. The top five crops are rice (Arkansas is the number 1 producer of rice in the nation), soybeans, cotton, corn for grain, and wheat with broilers and cattle making up the bulk of the livestock products. Since 1970, average temperatures in the Southeast have risen by 2 degrees and are expected to rise another 4 to 8 degrees by 2100. According to the EPA, in 2090 there will be 30-60 days each summer above 95ºF (today we have 15-30). These increased temperatures are expected to reduce the yields of rice and corn and will hurt the livestock industry. However, soybeans and cotton may benefit more from carbon fertilization while they are simultaneously affected by rising temperatures. Thus, yields of these crops are expected to remain stable.
Rising temperatures and drier summers associated with climate change will increase the likelihood of wildfires which could adversely impact forestry. Heat waves will affect recreation during the summer and the outdoor activities that people can engage in Arkansas. Higher temperatures will also affect water availability as a result of increased evaporation. During the spring and summer, precipitation rates have decreased as well resulting in an increased risk of drought which will only exacerbate any existing water stress. Two-thirds of Arkansas’s water resources come from groundwater and farmers use the bulk of it for irrigation. This is relevant because the groundwater supply has already been depleted to meet growing agricultural and irrigation needs.
Conversely, precipitation during the fall and winter has increased and exacerbated flood risk for communities along major rivers. Increased precipitation rates in the Midwest affect flooding in Arkansas because the Mississippi River makes up the eastern border of the state. The increased rainfall may also increase soil erosion that hurts the agriculture and forestry industries. The EPA recognizes precipitation induced flooding as the major climate change-related threat to Arkansas. Flood events can result in massive amounts of property damage, harm to crops and livestock, as well as infrastructure damage.
In addition, the social impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly evident. Heat waves are expected to result in more heat related deaths in larger cities like Little Rock, disproportionately affecting children, the elderly, the sick, and the poor. Extreme heat contributes to declining air quality as it accelerates the formation of ground level ozone (smog). Climate change will also increase pest populations such as ticks in Arkansas resulting in more vector-borne diseases like Lyme disease. Moreover, a social consequence of climate change is an influx of climate refugees from the Marshall Islands to northwest Arkansas. Their homes are being lost to sea level rise and this has caused an unprecedented mass migration.
Despite being notoriously conservative, politicians in Arkansas are preparing to combat climate change. Two Arkansas mayors, Little Rock mayor Mark Stodola and Fayetteville mayor Lioneld Jordan , support the Paris Agreement and have committed to bolstering local efforts to become more sustainable. Local efforts to combat climate change and environmental degradation may be more effective than any symbolic national efforts. I am hopeful that a combination of local and national efforts will succeed in keeping the Natural State accessible to farmers as well as people who simply love the outdoors.