Thursday, September 6, 2007

Climate change in your backyard

Are you curious about how climate change will affect you and your home location? I’m sure that’s in the backs of many people’s minds today, with so much talk of global warming and so many news stories of floods, drought and record-breaking heat.

Right now I can’t offer any definite answers, but I’m going to provide some clues and resources so that you can track the most current, most relevant and most accurate scientific data available that pertains to your region, if not your actual county or town.

I’m also going to continue to report news about climate-related impacts around the world and how those are being dealt with by the unfortunate souls who happen to be in their way. Between the science and the facts on the ground, you may be able to gather enough information to take some protective or preventative local action. At least I hope to motivate you to demand that your public officials provide you with ongoing risk assessments based on the most current science.

The science is advancing rapidly and so are some of the key factors that will determine tipping points in climate change. On the global level, we know that a lot of formerly permanent ice is melting at an accelerating rate. We’re also seeing some of the predicted markers of global warming appearing sooner than expected – extended droughts, extreme flooding, major heat waves. But the science of localized forecasting is still immature and not tailored for use by those of us who are not climatologists.

Here’s an example. This is an article posted 10 days ago on RealClimate, probably the most valuable hard science blog for following climate change. It’s titled Regional Climate Projections and it describes the different climate models that were incorporated into the findings of the fourth assessment report from the IPCC. The climate models are all structured to evaluate global processes, so breaking them down into regionally relevant reports is difficult. The closest we get, in this article, to localized projections is the assessment for North America, and here’s where the language barrier comes into play.

A number of RCM-based studies provide further regional details (North American Regional Climate Change Assessment Program). Despite improvements, AR4 also states that RCM simulations are sensitive to the choice of domain, the parameterisation of moist convection processes (representation of clouds and precipitation), and that there are biases in the RCM results when GCM are provided as boundary conditions rather than re-analyses.

Radiative-convective models (RCMs) and general dirculation models (GCMs) are beyond what us non-scientists are trained to understand. But the current drought and heat in the American Southwest are conditions that these models forecast, as is the intensifying of all weather conditions. We’re also seeing the migration of the average temperature lines toward the poles. Growing seasons are longer. Regions that have always had hard freezes during the winter are seeing warmer winters.

So I’m going to start simply and safely by emphasizing the climatic vulnerabilities of certain geographical situations. If you live near the ocean, you’re sea level infrastructure and housing is at risk. If you live on a floodplain, you’re risk of flooding may be increasing. If you live where summers are hot, look for them to get hotter. If you live in a desert environment, expect it to become drier.

But you can only do so much as an individual. Your public officials should be way ahead of you in assessing local risk. They should have access to the latest science and should be interpreting it for you, putting together contingency and action plans appropriate to the risks and informing you – their constituents – about them. You may need to do some of the initial groundwork to stimulate them to perform these duties, and I’m here to help you get that groundwork together.


Ted said...

Cliff (and readers), I recommend the Climate Leadership Initiative at the University of Oregon as a good campus-based effort to begin to tackle these "local" questions, at least in the Pacific Northwest:

Interesting resources and outreach for local governments, planners, and citizens.

Cliff Figallo said...

Thanks a bunch, Ted. I'll be checking them out and may head up there sometime.