Scientific evidence is mounting that points to potentially dire conditions in the years ahead for much of North America, a worsening climate that will challenge agriculture and population centers and could impede growth and stability and cause serious problems with food production and safe drinking water.
So says a new university-generated, government-funded climate assessment study that involved the nation's leading physical scientists from universities and research centers across the nation.
Not only does the new study focus on the specific consequences of climate change for the U.S. in the years ahead but also provides a look at the effects of climate change for regions including Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.
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The new study has already garnered accolades from the scientific community but political critics offer varying positions, most accusing the White House of beating the drums of war in an effort to justify promised crack downs on environmental issues. The new assessment suggests a possible link between human activity and extreme weather experienced across the country, though the study left the issue up for additional study. But Republicans charge the findings will be used to muscle through costly emissions regulations wanted by the Administration.
Regardless of the cause of climate change, whether natural, cyclic, caused by human activity or a combination of reasons, the assessment clearly indicates an escalating problem that is exacting a price on society.
"Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present," the 840-page assessment report reads. "Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington State and maple syrup producers in Vermont are all observing climate-related changes that are outside of recent experience."
The report predicts that weather-related repercussions of climate change "are expected to become increasingly disruptive across the nation throughout this century and beyond."
Review is more thorough
The climate report looked at regional and state-level effects of global warming, compared with recent reports from the United Nations that lumped all of North America together. But this new assessment has been reviewed by more scientists, the National Academy of Science and 13 government agencies that provided input as well as public comment.
"Even though the nation's average temperature has risen by as much as 1.9 degrees since record keeping began in 1895, it's in the big, wild weather where the average person feels climate change the most," said co-author Katharine Hayhoe, a Texas Tech University climate scientist. "Extreme weather like droughts, storms and heat waves hit us in the pocketbooks and can be seen by our own eyes."
Hayhoe says the new assessment tells us three very important things: First of all, it tells us that "climate change is a virtual reality.
"Climate change is a real problem, and the second thing this assessment confirms is that it is affecting us all; it’s hurting Americans in our country, people all across the world, and it is hurting us in the Great Plains and here in Texas. The last and most important part of the message is that not all is lost. The choices we are making now will determine the changes and the impacts we will live with in the future," she added.
Hayhoe said in many ways the Great Plains is a case in point. It is the agriculture heartland of the nation. In this region, life is all about agriculture, water and energy. She said the need to continue to grow abundant crops on the Plains resulted in overusing depleted aquifers, so farmers have become increasingly dependent on rainfall at a time when the climate is changing.
The assessment points to additional problems caused by drought. The number, size and intensity of wildfires continue to be alarming and in recent years fire fighting resources have been stretched and overtaxed. And climate change appears to be aiding unusual and unreliable tropical weather changes. Looking at a broader cycle, hurricanes have intensified, become more frequent and affected larger areas since the 1980s.
In addition, winter storms have increased in frequency and intensity and have shifted northward since the 1950s. In some areas, specifically the Northwest, heavy rains have increased causing serious flooding, and flooding has also increased in parts of the Midwest in recent years.
Also of concern, the report charges that climate change impacts include increased severity of heat waves and much drier conditions for most of the Southwest, including large parts of Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. On all U.S. coastlines the sea level rise is contributing to increased flooding during high tides and storms. And in the West, conditions are getting hotter and drier quickly, and the snowpack is melting earlier in the year, extending wildfire seasons.
Severe heat impact
Severe heat throughout the summer season is taking a toll on human health, according to the report. Extreme heat can cause heart, lung and kidney problems, especially among the poor, sick and elderly. The report predicts that the number of days where temperatures top 100 degrees will increase.
If emissions continue to rise, temperatures on the very hottest days during the last 20 years of this century may be 10 degrees to 15 degrees hotter across most of the country, the report finds.
While the new report paints dire conditions for most of the Southwest in the years ahead, many of the authors of the assessment say they believe it is not too late to make effective changes. While conditions are likely to continue toward a drier, hotter Southwest, many believe technology, recovery efforts and climate awareness will provide many answers that could help lessen the footprint of adverse climate developments.
New water sources and processes, better seed and plant genetics, and more efficient machinery can help offset some of the negative impacts of climate change.
The report highlights examples of changes that state and local governments can make to become more resilient. One of the main takeaways, said David Wolfe, a professor of plant and soil ecology at Cornell University and a co-author of the report, is that the new climate assessment report may signal a new awareness of the seriousness of the issue. He says it is time to "move beyond the debate about whether climate change is real or not and really get down to rolling up our sleeves."
The National Climate Assessment and underlying technical reports that support it also detail climate change impacts that affect Texas and the remainder of the Southwest including:
- Drought. Large parts of Texas are projected to see more days with no precipitation, similar to the 2011 drought in which Texas experienced more than 100 days above 100 degrees. Rates of water loss were double the long-term average, depleting water resources and contributing to more than $10 billion in direct losses to agriculture alone.
- Failing Aquifers and water shortages. Expanded drought will cause aquifer levels to decline and threaten the ability to maintain agricultural production in semi-arid regions in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. Smaller snowpacks in the mountains and reduced per capita water storage will make urban areas of the region more vulnerable to water shortages. Diminishing water supplies and rapid population growth are critical issues in the region.
- Increased incidents of allergies. From Texas to Montana, more frost-free days have altered flowering patterns, increasing the length of the pollen season for ragweed by as many as 16 days.
- Coastal losses. Coastal counties in Texas and along other areas of the Gulf Coast already face potential losses from hurricane winds, land subsidence, and sea level rise.