Monday, March 1, 2010

The US in a High Emissions Scenario

Number of days annually over 100oF in the recent past, and under high emissions in 2080-2099 according to p90 of Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States

So, I ended up spending much of my weekend going through Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, and I have to say I'm pretty gutted by the experience.  I'm just amazed that I didn't know about this report, despite regularly reading the NYT and a variety of progressive and moderate-conservative blogs at the time it was issued.  Realclimate never mentioned it.  Grist covered it, and the NYT did in fact mention it, but the NYT story has a flavor of "the government released a big long boring report with nothing new in it" and Grist mostly posts a long video of the press conference with little clue as to why you should watch it.  And neither coverage item, had I seen them, would have given me the slighest clue at how dynamite some of the contents are once I started reading and thinking for myself.  I think this report should be far higher profile in the public discourse than it is.  In fact, every citizen ought to read it.

Let me try to go through a few of the things that seemed particularly significant to me.  At some abstract level, I knew most of this stuff, but the maps and charts in here really made the scale of the problem much more clear to me.

Firstly, the report is written by a large collaboration of 30 or so authors, and a slew more reviewers, drawn from a variety of US agencies, with NOAA as the lead.  So it's in the character of an official US government assessment of the science, addressed to the President and Congress.  There are 500+ references, and it is in turn based on a series of scientific synthesis reports prepared by various agencies.  So it's clearly a summary of an enormous amount of work by a very large number of scientists and represents the state of the art in current understanding of climate change as applied to the US.  This is not to say that it will be right in all respects - clearly the planet as an entire system is so complex that scientists may not have successfully understood and modeled all the important physics, chemistry, and biology, and there may be surprises as additional effects show up.  Anyone paying attention to climate science is aware that there have already been significant surprises - it turned out that the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets started melting much faster than had been expected, and the Arctic sea ice appears to have been melting faster than climate scientists expected.  So I don't dismiss the possibility of things either being better or worse than climate science currently predicts.

Still, it seems worth while really understanding humanity's best guess about what the situation is.  Given that emissions are growing faster than the IPCC has studied, that the world has been unwilling or unable to agree on any meaningful global treaty, with the largest emitters, China and the United States, in particular unwilling to make any meaningful attempt to limit emissions, I wanted to look at the question "How bad are things in a high emissions scenario?"  In particular, in this post, I look at the period 2080-2100.  My children were born in 2000 and 2002, so 2080-2100 represents the likely end of their lives, all being well.  So this is a summary of the changes they will experience over the course of their lives.

Let's start with the figure from up top (a slight rearrangement of one on p90 of the report) which looks at how many days of the year the temperature reaches over 100oF:

Number of days annually over 100oF in the recent past, and under high emissions in 2080-2099 according to p90 of Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States

You will note the spread of the red/orange, in which you have 3-4 months-worth, or more, of days over a hundred degrees, from a small area of inland southern California, Nevada, and Arizona to most of the United States - at least California's central valley, most of the mountain west, the great plains and Texas, all but the northernmost sections of the mid west, and most of the south east.

Let's look a little bit at the area that has been red/orange in the recent past to get more of a feeling for what that's like.  I found a nice map at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum:

So clearly, the region we are talking about, where temperatures have historically been over 100F for 90-100 days or more, is the Sonora and Mojave Deserts.  Let's have a few visuals:

The Sonora desert from here.

The Mojave desert from here.

Hmmm.  But, obviously, these places are deserts now not just because it's hot, but because it's dry, right?  If it was this hot but wet, it would be a jungle, not a desert.  True enough.  Here's annual precipitation in the United States (from here).

Indeed, you can see that the Sonora/Mojave deserts are places that get less than 10 inches of rain each year.  Of course, there's a lot of the west that's similarly dry, or only a little bit wetter.  Ok, so what's going to happen to US precipitation under high emissions?  Now we turn to p31 of the report:

So basically, in the winter, the northern half of the country gets more rain/snow, while the southern half gets less rain.  But in the summer, the whole country will get less rain, and in the case of the Pacific Northwest and the Southeast, a lot less rain.

So, roughly, summers are going to be completely hellish to be outside throughout a lot of the country - comparable to conditions in the Sonora/Mojave deserts now.  The desert areas of the southwest are going to undergo a major expansion in all directions, the dry-mediterranean climate of Northern California is going to push up into Oregon and Washington, while California itself increasingly desertifies, the southeast is going to get much dryer and hotter, etc, etc.

I think it should be obvious that under these circumstances, just about every landscape in the country is going to change radically.  For those of us who like to get out and hike/bike/kayak, there's just about no place you might love that isn't going to undergo massive wrenching change.  For example, on p81, we see the Eastern half of the country, under a mid range warming scenario (so on the present trajectory, it's likely worse than this):

So fall in New England is not going to be the same at all, and maple syrup will become a Canadian product.

Furthermore, since trees can't up and walk, the process of changing forest types this fast isn't going to be a smooth one.  Instead, it will be mediated by fire and pests destroying the forests in the wrong place, and then invasive opportunistic plants springing up in their place (see p82-83 for more unpleasant detail).  So all the work that's been done over the past century to preserve some wild ecosystems in national parks etc, is going to be mostly subverted.  The park may still be there, but what grows in it will, in most cases, be nothing like the thing that we were originally trying to save.

How does one talk to ones kids about this stuff?


KLR said...

I think I caught this at the time. I recall reading something a bit more Pop Sci. It didn't get past Leanan, of course: DrumBeat: June 18, 2009. Surprisingly Cid_Yama at only linked to it a couple weeks ago. He and others at that site chip in with excellent material about the latest in AGW research, which is one of the things that maintain my interest in posting there; it's quite the den of trolls otherwise.

For hard copy I bought Climate Change Impacts on the United States years ago - it was published 2001. Dunno how much more dire the newer report is. Here in the Willamette Valley we're looking forward to hotter summers, more intense winter precipitation, decreased snowpack, invasive species. Luckily we grow quite the smorgasbord of crops here already and still have plenty of Missoula Floods topsoil to play with. Unfortunately I expect quite the army of refugees to set their sights here; "Oregon" has an almost mythical status as some Ecotopian haven, despite the centuries of urbanization/persistently sluggish economy/higher cost of living, this last especially pertinent in regards to fuel - we get all of our gasoline from shipped imports and the WA refineries, who get almost all of their crude from AK and Canada; when the North Slope and TAPS craps out, what then? This, in contrast to other locales' potential, which mostly goes unrecognized. Note that John Michael Greer has relocated from Ashland OR to Maryland, of all places. Industry/economy trumps sylvan glades.

Oregon will really get whomped by a subduction zone earthquake sometime, too. There. Just doing my part for the Chamber of Commerce...seriously, a lot of the Portland urban area will receive stronger and longer shaking, before the silty soil liquefies into quicksand. Stay away. Here be dragons.

chapter1 said...

> How does one talk to one's kids about this stuff?

I dunno, but be prepared to answer the same questions I asked my grandfather about the Holocaust: What did you know? When? What did you do to try to prevent it?
And be aware that they'll be able to easily check online to see what their dad could have known way back in 2010.

Gary said...

Stuart - grim compendium - will have to look at the complete report.

KLR - I'm a resident of the Willamette valley as well, so I appreciate your efforts to frighten others away. My worst fear is that as California and the southwest become uninhabitable, every one will move north - rendering our valley uninhabitable. I noticed the rainfall map shows ~40% less summer rain - but we are already dry in the summer so not sure how much that will change things.

Once we get serious about cutting carbon, the choices are few. Nuclear will undoubtedly be part of the mix - but I have high hopes for High Altitude Wind Power. I recently wrote a review article on the subject:

KLR said...

Thanks, Gary. Did you catch TOD pieces on Kitegen? The Oil Drum : Europe | High altitude wind power: an era of abundance?. File under: too good to be true. Well, perhaps that's a bit of false dichotomy.

There's a house with a wind turbine up in the Chehalem Mountains above my house, sort of going "nyah nyah" to us bottom dwellers and our coal/hydro/NG. Pure gesture, they have Green open houses on occasion too - mean to check things out some time.

Of course they're building huge wind farms like mad out on the Columbia Plateau where I grew up, too. Local high altitude courtesy of underlying sedimentary rock, beneath the miles of basalt flows - the jury's still out on whether there are hydrocarbons down there somewhere, it was coastline back in the Eocene.

Mark Lynas's book Six Degrees visits potential local impacts all over the globe. It's one of the most depressing books I've ever trudged through; he makes 1 degree of warming seem more than dire enough for any civilization's long term prospects.

Stuart Staniford said...

KLR - it seems to me the best guess for what the Willamette would be like end of century is like California's central valley today - much hotter and drier in the summer, lots of crops possible, but only with large scale irrigation (or in the winter).

Datamunger said...

The biggest change I've noticed in my neck of the woods in Southern Ontario in Canada is the near-impossibility of backyard hockey rinks and the advent of the the virginia opossum (unknown in my youth). Their ears and tails are often savaged by frostbite but they keep on coming.

KLR said...

One of the brighter lights at was a guy from WV who started a whole thread on invasive Japanese Beetles. May be of interest.

This is an excellent report, I'm going to print the thing out. Pity the hard copy is so spendy - $50+. Look at the chart of increased winter precip for New England/upper Midwest on pg 44; 58% increase over 1958-2007. "Snowmageddon" indeed.

There are OK aquifers in the Willamette Valley, sometimes the water needs a bit of treatment for drinkability. My town's water is good quality, unfortunately we pipe it under the Willamette River. Runoff is slated to remain fairly stable with decreased snowmelt but increased precips; but you can never do enough to propagate rainwater catchment systems. We should be directing stimulus funding towards things like qanats, irrespective of one's belief in AGW.

Perth's obtaining 17% of their fresh water from wind powered desalination is heartening; "only" a $500 million price tag.

Billhook said...

Stuart -

it is good to see this report getting more of an airing. Yet there are unavoidable shortcomings in trying to describe in a brief article a report that summarizes a huge amount of research (as you rightly note).

One of the aspects not included is that the changes projected can not account reliably for the impacts of the feedbacks which, being mutually iterative, have dynamics that have thus far defied credible computation.

Another is that the changes do not of course stop in 2090 - the graphics shown are but snapshots of one point in a chaotic scenario development process.

Another is that the simple number - say of inches of rainfall in spring - says little or nothing about the viability of crops under increasingly intense rain events (worldwide), often with compensating droughts between them. - As a farmer I've seen how destabilization of a variable easily trumps incremental change of its mere quantity as a threat to food production.

Another is that the frontier of rainfall change in a particular region is not going to be static, but will reflect the ongoing concert of all the forces, including forest loss in one place and its gain in another, plus changed ocean currents, plus the feedbacks' contributions, plus, critically, the outcome of human efforts at mitigation.

The latter is the seminal 'other thing' that the report didn’t cover - how we shall agree a global climate treaty to halt GHG outputs and to decelerate the feedbacks - and how we shall then fulfil that treaty in conduct and investment reform.

If this report were backed by a thorough authoritative account of the essential framework of that treaty
(see "Contraction & Convergence" originated by GCI, which UNFCCC players have described as 'inevitable')
and if it were backed by a similarly comprehensive account of the global options for practical mitigation,
then I'd welcome a version of it on large posters, CDs etc., being sent to every school and college and every public library etc. (Call it public education ?).

But, in the absence of a balancing focus on the scale of change needed for resolution, even the limited overview the report provides will tend to generate more apathy than action in people who aren't already acquainted with the looming hazards. - and even we who are find it pretty grim to study.

So, beside getting Obama to end the futile policy of appeasement of the fossil lobby,
and getting a price set on carbon emissions rising steeply enough to begin transforming conduct and equipment this decade,
how are we going to reduce airborne carbon sufficiently to decelerate the feedbacks ?

Afforestation for Biochar, Energy & Biodiversity ? - Anyone ?



Peaksurfer said...

You might have gotten on to this sooner had you followed my blog post, "Doomer Porn" on June 19, which was picked up and syndicated separately by Culture Change and Energy Bulletin. The Impacts study was important, if for no other reason than its ability to cut through so much of the b.s. in this field. I reference it in my new book, out from New Society this fall, The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change, and you can learn more about that also by following my blog, The Great Change at



Stuart Staniford said...

Albert - yep, looks like I would have done!

Sam Norton said...

Stuart - you say this is the 'higher emissions' scenario. I'd be grateful if you could share the specific figures on that, and outline the assumptions used re: fossil fuel reserves, so we can make an independent judgement of how realistic it is.

(I know you think there is sufficient coal, eg under the North Sea, but some of us would quibble a bit about that ;-)

nulinegvgv said...

I don't want to downplay the significance of this report, which is both fascinating and very scary. I do want to point out that it paints with a very broad brush.

So fall in New England is not going to be the same at all, and maple syrup will become a Canadian product. We sugar here in the Southeast with exactly the forest type scheduled for the Northeast (although admittedly not to the same standards ;-).

I am hopeful that species diversity will remain high even if the species in a given region change. Local conditions will greatly affect how this plays out in your backyard.

Still scary though.


Stuart Staniford said...

Aaron - aah! Thanks for the correction, I wasn't aware of that.

Stuart Staniford said...


I'm assuming that "high" refers to the IPCC A2 scenario. See here for details of what various scenarios assume. A2 rises fairly steadily to about 30GT/a of carbon emissions by the end of the century (with emissions in 2008 being about 8.5GT). So the total emitted in the remainder of the 21st century would be ballpark 92*19.25, or 2000GT in round numbers. That's about the equivalent of 14 trillion barrels of oil, but obviously someone like myself who believes peak oil is not too far off (depending on Iraq) would have to think most of that would come from coal, tar sands, etc. My assumption is that highly oil dependent economies such as the US will struggle enormously in the early decades of the twenty-first century. However, China and India, and even Europe, will be far more resilient in the face of declining oil supplies than the US, and now that emissions leadership has passed to the developing world, it doesn't seem to me that peak oil alone will necessarily be sufficient to prevent continued development of those economies.

Stuart Staniford said...

I guess another way to think about it is this - are there risks of some kind of global economic collapse associated with peak oil? Yes, particularly in the event of continued unrestrained biofuel growth. However, given that I believe a) net decline rates will be gradual, b) people will adapt much faster than they currently appear to be once they are pushed hard enough, and c) the biofuel stupidity is an optional creature of public policy and can be stopped once the food price increases hurt enough, I think those risks are far from a certain fatal diagnosis for civilization. But if that we survive those things, and if instead of transitioning to a renewable future, we transition to what Gregor McDonald is calling Coalworld, then we are in this high emissions scenario, in which civilization might survive, but the natural world will get degraded even faster than it already has been.

Stuart Staniford said...

BTW- 2000GT is about what caused the PETM.

brett said...

Aaron who sugars in the SE:

Do you get regular temps in the low/mid 20? or do your trees run at higher temps? We've had very few nights this year here in central oregon that cold and the sap run is way down from past years.


nulinegvgv said...

We regularly get low/mid 20s- not much colder than that at any time during the winter (we usually only get into the teens for a few nights each year) but those 20 degree nights seem to be enough. Our volume and quality isn't that of the Northeast but it is possible as far south as North Carolina.

ccpo said...

What everyone forgets, ignores or doesn't understand is the methane. See the new report out of Siberia the last 24- 48 hours.

Stuart, your high-emissions scenario might well be wishful thinking.


Hans said...

It would be interesting to calculate future evapo-transpiration data, based on future temperatures and precipitation. Then subtract this from the future precipitation data to retreive water supply deficits.
It's obvious that evapo-transpiration will be higher in warmer areas, which happen to become dryer at the same time. I think these calculations would result in a desertification process in the south- and midwest.

Greg T. Jeffers said...

O....M.....G.... what HAVE we wrought?