Climate Change in Kansas: Rising temperatures mean larger wildfires, warmer nights and more flash flooding

While often overlooked in discussions about climate change, Kansas is experiencing its own set of environmental challenges that carry profound implications both for the state’s ecology and its residents.

In the coming years, Kansans are likely to see more damaging wildfires, increased summer humidity and more extreme weather events that can wreak havoc on farming communities, said Grady Dixon, Ph.D., Professor of Geosciences at Fort Hays State University.

“The state has seen an unprecedented number of wildfires in the past 10 to 15 years,” Dixon said. “All of the big wildfires that people know from Kansas history have all been in the last decade.”

Droughts and wildfires are common patterns of climate change already taking hold in other parts of the country, like California. A warmer atmosphere means more moisture in the air and less water in the ground, causing dryer conditions that allow wildfire to spread rapidly.

These conditions also cause longer periods between rainfall, known as “flash droughts,” which can damage crops, said Charles Rice, Ph.D., a distinguished professor of soil microbiology at Kansas State University.

“Last year Manhattan, Kansas had one of the hottest days in the world,” Rice said. “That really stressed the plants, and then we had another seven-day stretch without rain that wiped out a lot of soybean crops.”

More moisture in warm air also means that cold fronts can cause flash floods, or heavy rainfall in a short period of time. In Kansas that could mean four to six inches of rain in a couple of hours, causing erosion and runoff in fields and increased flooding downstream.

“That’s one of the things Kansas will need to learn how to handle,” Rice said. “Warmer temperatures are difficult, but when you also have flash droughts and then flash floods, it’s hard to manage.”

One of the biggest changes that could have wide implications for Kansans is warmer temperatures at night, Dixon said. As global temperatures rise, it’s no surprise summer days will be hot in Kansas, but increased summer humidity will also result in temperatures in the 70s and 80s at night instead of the 60s.

“That’s the difference between your body recovering and being able to handle more heat the next day or your body still being stressed,” Dixon said. “During heat waves, you see the greatest casualty numbers a day or two after the hottest day. And that is due to the body accumulating stress and not being able to recover.”