National Report: Climate Change Is Already Here: US to See Acceleration of Current Extreme Weather Trends, Study Says

By Roewe, Brian | National Catholic Reporter, April 12, 2013 | Go to article overview

National Report: Climate Change Is Already Here: US to See Acceleration of Current Extreme Weather Trends, Study Says


Roewe, Brian, National Catholic Reporter


Rapidly receding sea ice off the coast of Alaska. More frequent heat waves across the Southwest. More intense coastal storms costing lives and dollars.

Long part of the debate in Washington and across the country, these changes to the U.S. climate are no longer mere conjecture and environmentalist forecasting. They are already here.

That was the consensus reached by the 240 authors of the latest draft of the National Climate Assessment Report. Released in January the report represented the third such version since the 1990 Global Change Research Act required its production by the government at least every four years. It was to remain open to public comments through April 12.

"Americans are noticing changes all around them. Summers are longer and hotter, and periods of extreme heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours, though in many regions there are longer dry spells in between," recapped a letter in the report addressed to the American people.

The report documented impact analyses of eight geographic regions along seven sectors--human health, water, energy, transportation, agriculture, forests, ecosystems and biodiversity--and for the first time added assessments on the current state of adaptation and mitigation efforts.

Early on, the nearly 1,200-page draft draws a clear line between the changing climate and human activity stating the "change of the past 50 years is due primarily to human activities, predominantly the burning of fossil fuels." Since 1895, the average temperature has increased 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit--with 80 percent of the rise coming in the last three decades. The past two decades frost-free seasons have lasted 10 days longer than the last century's first 60 years, seemingly a boon for crop production, but more likely a negative trend toward less moisture and longer, more intense forest-fire seasons.

The forecast for the next century only yields continued acceleration of current trends. The present levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere make some degree of climate change and related impacts unavoidable over the next few decades. If all human-caused emissions abruptly halted, the report still projects a base increase of .5 F But where warming goes from there depends on what measures, if any, are adopted in coming years, estimating a rise anywhere from 3 F to 10 F over the course of the century.

The two scenarios representing opposite ends of emissions action flow throughout the report: In one scenario, emissions levels continue to grow at their current pace, and in the other, policies to significantly curb emissions are implemented.

The Southwest

While all parts of the country have experienced climate change in some form, the forecasts for the Southwest--defined in the report as California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado--where population growth is most rapid, draws special focus.

Projections in the six-state region, which in the 2000s experienced its warmest decade in the 110 years of instrumental records, present a difficult period ahead. Should summertime heat waves become longer and more intense, as expected, those states would face greater strains on energy and water supplies, and likely see a rise in heat-related illnesses and deaths. The situation is exacerbated among the cash-strapped. but growing, border cities.

The combination of warmer temperatures and less snowfall would likely alter growing seasons and crop production, as well. Yields in tree fruit and wine grapes could drop under such conditions, as could the region's high-value crops (apricots, figs. olives. etc.), which represent more than half of the nation's production of those products. Less snowfall would also mean more need for irrigated water in agriculture, placing additional demands on an already strained water supply. …

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