A lot of the news that people read about climate change focuses on events happening well outside Kentucky. So when state residents hear about a melting glacier in Greenland, they might reasonably wonder if climate change is affecting Kentucky at all.

But climate change is happening right here. Ask farmers, who have seen fields flooded over and topsoil washed away by the intense rains Daviess County has seen in the last few years.

"The discussion of climate change and the changing of weather patterns, we discuss that all the time," said Clint Hardy, Daviess County's extension agent for agriculture and natural resources. "Everyone discusses the realization that these storms come more frequently and more violently than they did."

While the Cooperative Extension Service isn't doing any research or collecting data on climate change and weather, Hardy said the weather "has made it more difficult to farm." While rains that deliver 2- or 3-inch gushers used to be uncommon, "everyone has one or two of those every growing season" now, Hardy said.

The impact of climate change is being felt by more than just farmers. Rising temperatures and warmer winters have the potential of allowing invasive species and plant diseases to spread into Kentucky, and the University of Kentucky has already documented one pest species in the state that was formerly seen only in the Gulf States.

There will also be health effects because hotter temperatures make people more vulnerable to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. And not everyone has the financial resources to escape the heat.

Climate change is anticipated to be much worse in other parts of the U.S. That will make Kentucky a potential refuge for people fleeing areas that are becoming unfarmable or unlivable.

"Climate refugees are not necessarily the people we stereotype as refugees," said Tony Stallins, a UK professor of geography who has studied urban climate change and sea level rise. "They are people who have lost opportunity."

Farmers and "people who just don't have enough money to live in a certain place anymore are refugees, too," Stallins said.

'They are seeing things they've never seen before'

So far this year, Daviess County has seen 10 days where the county has received more than an inch of rain in a 24-hour period, according to the National Weather Service. The heaviest rain day, so far, was on April 20, when 2.32 inches of rain fell on the county.

There have been three days this year where the county received more than 2 inches of rain in 24 hours and three other days where rainfall totaled more than 1.5 inches.

Those heavy rains are having an impact on fields.

"Soil loss is a big problem when you get these 2- to 3-inch rains," Hardy said. When topsoil is washed away by a downpour, "you don't get that soil back."

"The change in the hydrological cycle is becoming easier to identify," Stallins said. "... It's something (climate researchers) expected. It's an intensification of the hydrologic cycle" in the state.

As the climate continues to change, Kentucky is expected to be wetter. All that water will have a negative impact on farming.

"Predictions for our precipitation are hard to nail down, but Kentucky is predicted to get wetter in the next 50 years," said Rebecca McCulley, chair of UK's plant and soil science department and former director of the university's Tracy Farmer Institute for Sustainability and the Environment.

"Kentucky is an interesting state because our politics don't really align with climate change," McCulley said. "But when you talk to most farmers, they'll readily admit to you they are seeing things they've never seen before and are dealing with things they've never dealt with before."

If delayed crops and crop loss due to flooding become a common issue in Kentucky, farmers won't have a lot of options.

"If you're used to being able to get out into the fields in the second week of April and that is getting pushed back ... you may be adjusting the variety of corn you are planting," or maybe considering not planting corn at all, McCulley said.

"I feel confident agriculture will continue in Kentucky," she said. "What it's going to look like, I can't tell you."

Still, "there are places further south that aren't going to be so lucky" as Kentucky, McCulley said. In Texas, for example, "it's going to be hard to grow much of anything in that environment."

'It's real and it will happen'

Native plants and insects are going to be affected by climate change here, and warming temperatures could mean things we'd rather not have move into the state.

The impact of climate change on insects is hard to gauge because insect populations tend to go through an up-and-down cycle anyway, said Ric Bessin, a UK professor of entomology. But pests that aren't native to Kentucky could begin moving into the state if the winters, which normally would have kept those pests out, become milder.

"I had a student working several years ago, and he was looking for sandflies," Bessin said. "... The literature says they are found in the Gulf States, but he was finding them as far north as Lexington and western Kentucky. It was a big shift to the range of (those) insects."

Sandflies are known to spread some pathogens, he said.

While insect researchers have seen increases in other pests, particularly ticks, and a decline in important pollinators in Kentucky, those changes haven't been directly tied to climate change.

"Generally, with other wild pollinators, there has been a decline (with them) as well," Bessin said. "We don't have good data on what is causing that." But climate change could cut insects off from their traditional sources of food.

"There are many people concerned climate change is going to disconnect insects from their food source, especially the migrators," McCulley said. If an important insect food source blooms too early due to a warmer climate, those insects will die.

"It's real and will happen, and it will happen to insects," McCulley said. "The question is, how quickly can they evolve?"

"There have been people worldwide that have been talking about declines in insect populations," Bessin said. Last fall, the National Academy of Sciences reported major declines in insect populations in areas of the world it studied. Earlier this year, National Geographic cited a study in the journal Biological Conservation that "suggest(ed) 40 percent of all insect species are in decline and could die out in the coming decades."

Bessin said insects are vital. "We rely a lot on insects ... They do a lot of things that ecosystems rely on."

Also, what if in addition to losing beneficial insects, like pollinating monarch butterflies, Kentucky also started to gain nasty insects that normally don't range this far north?

"Kentucky doesn't have fire ants," although the pests are as close as Tennessee and could move north if winters are milder, McCulley said. The same is true of Africanized bees, which can't move this far north, although that too is a possibility if climate change allows them to spread, she said.

"How winter temperatures are going to go (in Kentucky), no one can be sure."

'It suddenly puts a lot of stress on trees'

Invasive plants and some crop diseases have been kept out of Kentucky by cold winters thus far. Soybean rust, which is known to cause devastating crop loss, never made a major impact on Kentucky because winters were harsh enough to kill it all the way back to southern Florida. Kudzu vines have also been kept in check in the state by winter temperatures.

Could that change if a warming climate makes winters here less harsh? Of course.

"(Kudzu) is nowhere near what it would be to our state if we didn't get the cold," McCulley said.

The effect of climate change on native plants is cumulative. That is, climate change alone won't kill your trees, but it will put another nail in their coffins and shorten the lifespan of trees that already stressed by other things, such as weather or disease.

"As we consider variability and swing (in temperatures), we are beginning to see more plant injury," said Annette Heisdorffer, Daviess County's extension agent for horticulture. "At this point, I can't name one specific thing. The swing affects many different plants. Most affected are the trees."

If trees bloom earlier due to warmer winters and then experience freezes are damaged, Heisdorffer said.

"It suddenly puts a lot of stress on trees," she said. But Heisdorffer could not say that climate change alone is damaging trees.

Perennials are also affected by weather changes, such as when roots are damaged by heavy rains, she said.

'There is going to be a heat class division'

Understandably, humans are more concerned about human life than the impacts of climate changes on plants, insects and animals. But humans will be affected in Kentucky.

For starters, there will be more heat, although the heat won't be distributed evenly. Thanks to "microclimates," some parts of the same city (such as a downtown area, neighborhood or college campus) will be dramatically hotter than others.

"If I had to rate the events that are going to unfold, heat, and the changes in lifestyle that is going to come from excessive heat, is going to be the most visible," Stallins said.

There will be economic impacts. People who work outside, for example, won't be able to work as much, Stallins said.

"It's going to reorganize how a lot of labor is done outdoors," Stallins said. But "not all workers have that flexibility" to get out of the heat, he said.

Rising temperatures and the ability to get out of the heat is going to become an issue in Kentucky as in other parts of the world, and it will become an issue of concern for cities. Owensboro, in the past, has opened cooling shelters during excessive heatwaves, although emergency officials opted not to do so during a bout of severe heat earlier this summer.

"A lot of places that have more wealth will have resources to get people into places where they can cool down," Stallins said. Also, people with the financial resources to run their air conditioners will be able to escape the heat.

"The people with low incomes are not going to have that flexibility, and the resources to adapt," he said. "There is going to be a heat class division.

"The 'right to air conditioning' is a question I've seen in the literature now: 'Do people have a right to be safe from heat?'" Stallins said.

Despite the impacts climate change is expected to have in Kentucky, the state is not going to be hit as hard as other parts of the U.S. Some parts of the world, such as the Middle East and India, are expected to become uninhabitable due to climate change, and life in some parts of the U.S. will be very difficult, Stallins said

"Florida is too hot and too unpredictable," Stallins said. Hurricanes strengthened by climate change can strike all along the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico. Stallins said he has already heard stories of people from Texas who have relocated to Kentucky and are "buying horse farms and are buying water." Other people might relocate away from hurricane-prone areas, he said.

"I think the link between hurricanes and climate change is strong now, and Kentucky might be the go-to location," Stallins said. "... I think the next industry in Kentucky might be catering to the overflow" of people moving into the state to escape the effects of climate change.

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

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