Agriculture on the southern plains isn't necessarily doomed, though, Hayhoe stresses. "There are techniques being developed already, such as dry-land farming, rotating crops and using waste as biofuel that will keep the economy going." Actions also can be taken at the local level to reduce the vulnerability of agriculture, she says, including using energy more efficiently and developing sounder management and development policies.
Other adaptations include switching to more heat-tolerant breeds of livestock and even away from cattle altogether, says Wayne Polley, research ecologist at the USDA's Grassland, Soil and Water Research Laboratory. "Major changes in agricultural land use will mean changes in our eating habits and our family budgets as well."
"There are absolutely things farmers could do to deal with climate change," Cox says. "This is not a technical problem. There is a whole suite of practices that would make farming systems more resilient and able to stand up to climate change. Yet instead of making farming more resilient to the challenges, current government agricultural policy actually takes us in the opposite direction." Ending mandates for corn ethanol and once again tying crop insurance to land conservation would help reduce erosion and drainage of wetlands on farmland, he says, reducing the risk of returning Dust Bowl conditions.
The good news, Hayhoe adds, is that whatever happens, the land will still be here. "In the southern Great Plains we may have a major shift to dry-land crops. We may have to shift when we plant. But we have the option of trying different things—as opposed to, say, Bangladesh, where cropland is being lost to sea-level rise.
"We can save ourselves by wise planning," she says. "But a lot of change has been hampered because people don't want to do anything that has a 'climate change' label on it, and also because industrial, large-scale systems are resistant to changes because changes are expensive. But that's true only in the short term. Not doing anything will be way more expensive in the long term. Business as usual is not going to be a viable option 30 years from now, or even sooner."
Fifty miles south of Hayhoe's Texas Tech office, agricultural fields line an arrow-straight highway. On a dry, windy day, in circular fields created by wheeled irrigation contraptions that spin from a well in the center, water sprays onto new autumn crops. Enormous bales of recently harvested cotton stacked up at nearby gins render bits of the snowy fluff to the wind, which catch the grass along the road's edge to gather into miniature drifts. As temperatures rise and the aquifer levels fall, these iconic images of high plains agriculture may be blown away with the dust.