The central contradiction of climate change is that it is the most epic problem our species ever faced, yet largely invisible to the average human. From home, you may not be able to see how climate change is already affecting mental health, disrupting ecosystems, or how cities like Los Angeles are taking drastic measures to prepare for water shortages.
So the challenge for scientists is to raise the alarm for something that is difficult to conceptualize. But a new interactive map is perhaps one of the best visualizations of how climate change is going to change America. Click on your city and the map shows a modern analogue city that matches your climate of 2080. New York City will feel more like today's Jonesboro, Arkansas. the bay area more like LA; and LA more like the tip of Baja California. If this does not take into account the terrible climate change threat, I'm not sure what this will do.
The data behind it is nothing new, but the public-friendly repackaging of this data, known as Climate-Analog Mapping, is a shift how science reaches the public. "The idea is to translate global predictions into something less distant, less abstract, more psychologically local, and more relevant," says University of Maryland ecologist Matt Fitzpatrick, principal author of a new article in Nature Communications system.
Fitzpatrick studied 540 urban areas in North America using three primary datasets. One captures the current climatic conditions (an average of the years between 1960 and 1990), the second included forecasts of future climate, and the third provided the historical climate variability measured by NOAA weather records from year to year. (Depending on the city, the climate may be "more stable" or fluctuating between years.) Researchers especially looked at temperature and precipitation, although of course these are not the only variables in modeling the climate – read more
If you click on the interactive map, you will notice some trends in a scenario where emissions continue to rise for 60 years. "Many cities on the east coast will become places in the southwest that are on average about 500 miles away," says Fitzpatrick. On the west coast, cities generally look like places just south of them. Portland, for example, will feel more like the Central Valley of California in 2080, which is generally warmer and drier. The map also has an option (on the left) that uses a different calculation to show what the shifts would look like if emissions were to peak around 2040 and start.
The effects are shocking but may be useful. "Understanding public sector outcomes in an understandable way to educate policy and science is notoriously difficult," says University of Wisconsin-Madison climate researcher Kevin Burke, who was not involved in the study. "A notable finding in this work is the potential of cities and their analogue pairs to transfer knowledge and coordinate climate adaptation strategies."
Take extreme heat, for example. This is a norm in a place like Phoenix, a city full of air conditioning. But in a place like San Francisco, air conditioning is a rarity. If San Francisco really has a climate like LA's in the 1960s, it will be a major public health problem. Extreme heat kills easily, as in Europe's deadly 2017 heat waves.
Another important aspect is water. In many urban areas it will be drier, in others the total precipitation may remain unchanged. However, precipitation patterns may change – for example, all fall in winter. "Even if it gets the same amount, it could have a huge impact on places that are not used to an extended summer drought or you," says Fitzpatrick.
San Francisco could learn water management techniques dating back to 2080 by analogy. Climate models predict that there will be fewer but heavier rains in the coming decades. To prepare, the city has embarked on an ambitious program to capture these huge reservoirs with a network of cisterns built into street medians. The rainfall program reduces the dependency on water sent to the city from a distance.
The Bay Area, historically blessed with more rainwater than its neighbor to the south, was not so forward-looking. Richly populated communities have made hissing attacks when new water needs meant their lawns – – gasp – would turn brown. "Los Angeles is way ahead of the Bay Area as it has created incentives to move away from the more water-intensive outdoor landscaping that we still have in the advanced Bay Area," says Michael Kiparsky, director of Wheeler Water Institute at UC Berkeley, who was not involved in this new work.
Changes in precipitation would, of course, seriously affect agriculture. However, something more subtle will also unfold: Climate change will also change the composition of local ecosystems. Pests like mosquitoes could be booming in your community. Certain plant species may not be able to cope with the sudden shift and extinction.
"Humans can reasonably adapt and move, but animals and ecosystems will not be able to do so in such a short time," says Swiss Federal Institute for Technology Climate Scientist Reto Knutti, who was not involved in the study. "So we are pursuing a risky experiment with the earth with partially unknown consequences."
"That's actually my biggest concern," says Fitzpatrick. "It's not necessarily the direct changes in the climate, but these indirect impacts on natural and agricultural systems, given the size and speed of these changes."
Even more frightening is that some of the North American cities studied by Fitzpatrick will not have a modern equivalent in 2080. That means you can not compare them to a climate we see today. The more difficult it is to respond to the threat. The Bay Area will feel more like Los Angeles in 60 years and adapt accordingly. However, if you do not have a good idea of what is coming, it is hard to mitigate the threat.
However, it is clear that this climate-analogous technique simplifies things. For example, researchers have made things too complicated, such as the urban heat island effect, where cities absorb more heat than in rural areas. And this is the average climate not the weather. For example, the recent cold spell on the east coast was caused by warmer temperatures in the Atlantic.
"None of this is captured by these analogs," says Andrew Jarvis, a scientist at Agricultural Research Institute CGIAR. "From the point of view of communication, this is one of the dangers. It simplifies itself too much. "And necessarily, climate systems are monumentally complex, though scientists are gradually gaining a better understanding of how our planet will change in times of climate change. A map alone can not convey all that knowledge.
The idea of this new interactive map, however, is to better visualize for both ordinary citizens and policy makers what has previously been portrayed as impenetrable datasets. "Most of all, I hope it's an eye-opener and more discussions are starting, so more planning can take place," says Fitzpatrick.
Climate change is here and has already caused havoc. So, consider this as a guide to navigate through the chaos.
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