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Arid West Climate Moves East, New Study Shows

Climate change has moved the 100th meridian west climatic divide from its historical position (solid line) 140 miles eastward (dotted line) in recent decades.
Climate change has moved the 100th meridian west climatic divide from its historical position (solid line) 140 miles eastward (dotted line) in recent decades.

The dry and arid climate of the Western U.S. is marching eastward, thanks to climate change.

That’s the conclusion of a set of studies from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Institute. 

Click 'play' to hear the audio version of this story.

The Western and Eastern U.S. have historically been roughly divided by the 100th Meridian. That longitudinal line is also a climactic boundary: historically it separated the dry, arid West from the more humid Midwest. 

The more arid climate of the west has crept 140 miles east in recent years, to overtake the more humid eastern U.S. That shift has major implications for agriculture.

"A farmer who was considering passing on her or his farm to their children over the next decade or two should be considering these kind of climate or environment changes," said Richard Seager, lead author of the study and Palisades Geophysical Institute/Lamont Research Professor. "There has to be some kind of adjustment. They can’t just carry on doing exactly what they’re doing right now because of this encroaching aridity. "

The change in climate could mean that Midwest farmers might have to plant wheat instead of corn, or considering converting their fields to rangeland. It might also mean that farms need more land and more irrigation water to compensate for the decrease in humidity in the Midwest. 

Seagerand his colleagues predicted that if climate change trends continue, this eastward climate shift will continue, and the aridity of the West will continue to overtake the central U.S.  Find reporter Amanda Peacher on Twitter @amandapeacher.

Copyright 2018 Boise State Public Radio

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Amanda Peacher is an Arthur F. Burns fellow reporting and producing in Berlin in 2013. Amanda is from Portland, Oregon, where she works as the public insight journalist for Oregon Public Broadcasting. She produces radio and online stories, data visualizations, multimedia projects, and facilitates community engagement opportunities for OPB's newsroom.
Amanda Peacher
Amanda Peacher works for the Mountain West News Bureau out of Boise State Public Radio. She's an Idaho native who returned home after a decade of living and reporting in Oregon. She's an award-winning reporter with a background in community engagement and investigative journalism.
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