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  • Writer's pictureDeb Hagemeier

Climate changes cause public health concerns for South Dakota "island"

The health risks of a changing climate are lapping at the shores of our landlocked midcontinental island on the prairie seas.

North American bison on the South Dakota prairie
Photo by Lydia Terpstra

Welcome to our island!

Our beautiful northern Great Plains “island” of South Dakota sits in the middle of prairie seas where we are safe from dangers caused by searing heat, choking smoke, and infectious intrusions. Or are we?

Here are some risks landing on our own South Dakota shores.

Extreme heat, vulnerable populations, blackouts

Carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere has increased to 417.06 parts per million causing temperatures to rise at an accelerated rate. As our name SoDak 350 reminds us, 350 ppm is the optimal maximum. The higher heat and humidity can reach dangerous levels for humans who are subject to heat exhaustion or even heat stroke. According to advice from the CDC on extreme heat, “those at greatest risk for heat-related illness include infants and children up to four years of age, people 65 years of age and older, people who are overweight, and people who are ill or on certain medications.”

If you are like me, you give daily thanks for air conditioning during the summer. But even those welcome AC units have limits to their capacity. In addition, our “island” is connected to a power grid which can be disrupted due to power outages. Blackouts can happen during a heat wave for a number of reasons including the strain of cranked up air conditioners. Also, persons who do not have air conditioning available face risks of dehydration and overheating that can prove deadly.

Wildfire smoke, pollen, asthma

A recent study from the University of Michigan has detected a link between air pollution and dementia. Exposure to particulate matter found in agricultural dust and wildfire smoke has been discovered to have strong ties to dementia rates. This relationship has been shown to be stronger than that of traffic pollution and coal combustion.

Higher pollen concentrations and longer pollen seasons are happening due to changing precipitation patterns and warmer air. This can make people more sensitive to allergens and trigger asthma episodes that diminish productive work and school days. The EPA is predicting continued increases in pediatric asthma cases due specifically to poorer air quality caused by climate change.

West Nile virus, Lyme disease, outdoor activities

Sometimes little bugs sneak in to inhabit our happy island. The West Nile virus borne by mosquitos becomes more prevalent in environments experiencing warmer temperatures and high humidity. Individuals, pets and livestock can be affected by West Nile in South Dakota.

The same conditions and risks exist for Lyme disease, which is a bacteria carried by ticks. Cautious people tend to avoid being outdoors when the risk of these insect-borne diseases is high. Hunters, tourists, and other “island” visitors might be discouraged from enjoying our many well-known outdoor activities.

Other public health risks from a changing climate

Other public health risks from climate change include food infection with salmonella, water borne infections, coastal flooding and rising sea levels displacing true islanders. The impacts on our mental health cannot be ignored because all this disruption can drive us crazy–island fever, anyone?

One last observation about islands…

Think of the suffering people of Maui! Poor preparation, isolation, and climate change denial were the downfall of many good people. We don’t want to be on an island like that.


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