Oklahoma, United States – The last five years have been tough on Tye Baker, the director of Water Resources for the Choctaw Tribe of Oklahoma.
First, there was the drought: frighteningly little precipitation from the end of 2010 until the spring of 2015. Then there was heat: 35 straight days of temperatures above 37 degrees Celcius in 2011. Then came the flooding: torrents of rain, 30cm at a time, during the summer of 2015.
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Through it all, it has been up to Baker to ensure that the Choctaw people have clean, drinkable water in their homes, a task hard enough without the added complication of the erratic weather. But erratic weather is the norm now, a consequence of rising global temperatures, Baker believes.
“Climate change brings uncertainty, so we try to adapt to that uncertainty,” Baker adds. “I’m having to deal with what the climate provides me. All I can do is adapt.”
Across Oklahoma, there are 37 other tribes also struggling to adapt. And while the weather affects all residents, the Native American nations face unique challenges.
For one, many of them don’t own or manage their own water facilities – the state does. In some cases, the state has diverted water from tribal lands towards large cities without asking for the tribes’ approval or compensating them for it.
Climate change also threatens the cultural practices of the tribes. It has decimated important species used in traditional craft-making, such as river cane and the freshwater mussel, and it has thrown off traditional growing seasons and accompanying ceremonies.
Established in 2012, the South Central Climate Science Center (SCCSC) has been working with tribes across the south-central US to identify their unique vulnerabilities, help them cope with emergencies and develop long-term adaptation strategies. It’s a federally funded research consortium that comprises four state universities across the region and two Native American tribes: the Choctaw and the Chickasaw.
“We try to put together research groups that answer questions about climate in the southern US,” says Renee McPherson, the codirector of the centre.
“We especially try to work closely with tribes.There are over 70 in the south-central region and all are being stressed by the climate … We try to help people like [Baker], who are dealing with these questions, to get the answers they need.”
McPherson manages several research teams out of the University of Oklahoma who are currently studying everything from the effect of winter weather events on wildlife to the drivers of major weather shifts to seasonal agricultural forecasting.
The centre then works with one of its tribal liaisons to make sure the findings are delivered in useful ways to tribal governments and members. “We try to develop materials that translate science from gobbledygook into guidance documents and instructional videos,” McPherson says.