The central contradiction of climate change is that it is at the same time the most epic problem that our species has ever faced, but is largely invisible to the average human. From the comfort of your home, you may not realize how climate change is already affecting mental health, or ripping ecosystems, or how cities like Los Angeles are taking drastic measures to prepare for water scarcity.
The challenge for scientists, therefore, is raising the alarm on something that is difficult to conceptualise. But a new interactive map is perhaps one of the best views of how climate change will transform America. Click on your city and the map will identify a modern analog city that matches your climate in 2080. The city of New York will be more like today, Jonesboro, in Arkansas; the Bay Area is more similar to LA; and LA is more like the tip of the Baja California. If this does not put the terrible threat of climate change into perspective, I'm not sure what it will do.
The data behind it are nothing new, but the repackaging of the public of such data, known as mapping climate-analogy, represents a change in the way science reaches the public. "The idea is to translate global forecasts into something less remote, less abstract, more psychologically local and relevant," says the University of Maryland ecologist Matt Fitzpatrick, lead author of a new article in Nature Communications which describes the system.
Fitzpatrick examined 540 urban areas in North America using three primary data sets. One of the current climatic conditions captured (an average of the years between 1960 and 1990), the second contained projections of future climates, and the third provided the variability of the historical climate from year to year taken from NOAA meteorological recordings. (Depending on the city, the climate may be more "stable" or fluctuate more wildly in years.) Researchers have considered temperature and precipitation in particular, although obviously these are not the only two variables during climate modeling. a little bit.
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 more like places in the southwest, on average about 500 miles away," Fitzpatrick says. On the west coast, cities generally look like places to the south. Portland, for example, in 2080 will feel more like the Central Valley of California, which is generally warmer and drier. In addition, the map has an option (on the left side) that uses a different calculation to show how the shifts would be if the emissions peaked around 2040 and began to fall.
The implications are shocking but also potentially useful. "The framing results in a digestible way for the public sector, to inform policies and, for the scientific community, is notoriously difficult," says Kevin Burke, climate scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who he was involved in the study. "A notable achievement of this work is the potential for cities and their analog pairs to transfer knowledge and coordinate climate adaptation strategies."
Take the extreme heat, for example. This is a norm in a place like Phoenix, a city full of air conditioners. But in a place like San Francisco, air conditioning is a rarity. If San Francisco really ends up with a climate like that of Los Angeles in the last 60 years, this will be a big public health problem. Extreme heat kills easily, as in the case of mortal heat waves in Europe in 2017.
Another important consideration is water. Many urban areas will become drier, but others may see their total precipitation remain unchanged. However, rain patterns could change, for example all in the fall. "So even if you're getting the same amount, this could have very big implications for places that are not used to having a prolonged summer drought, or what you have," Fitzpatrick says.
San Francisco could bear to learn a little water management techniques from its analogue 2080. Climate models predict that in the coming decades, LA will see less, but more intense downpours. So, to prepare, the city has started an ambitious program to capture those huge dumps of water with a network of tanks built in the middle streets. The rain catch program reduces the dependence on water from the city from afar
. The area of the bay, which has historically been blessed with more rainwater than its near south, has not been so far-sighted. Rich communities have whistled when the new water requirements meant that their lawns would be panting -in brown. "Los Angeles is way ahead of the Bay Area in terms of incentives to get away from the high-water outdoor landscape that we still have in the progressive Bay Area," says Michael Kiparsky, director of the Wheeler Water Institute at UC Berkeley, who was not involved in this new job.
Changes in precipitation would have serious implications for agriculture, of course. But something subtler will also develop: as the climate changes, so does the composition of local ecosystems. Parasites such as mosquitoes, for example, could explode in your community. Some plant species may not be able to handle the sudden change and die.
"Humans could adapt to a certain extent, and move, but animals and ecosystems will not be able in that short time," says Federal Federal Institute of Technology climate scientist Reto Knutti, who has not been involved in the study. "So we are carrying out a risky experiment with the Earth, with partly unknown consequences."
"This is actually my biggest concern," says Fitzpatrick. "It is not necessarily direct changes in the climate, it is these indirect impacts on natural and agricultural systems given the magnitude and the rate of these changes."
Even more frightening, some of the North American cities that Fitzpatrick explored will not have a modern equivalent in 2080. That is, you can not compare them to a climate we see today. Which makes it even more difficult to react to the threat: the Bay Area can anticipate feeling more like Los Angeles in 60 years and adapt accordingly, but if you do not have a good idea of what's coming, it's hard to mitigate the threat.
To be clear, however, this analog climatic technique simplifies things – for example, researchers have omitted compelling factors such as the urban heat island effect, in which cities absorb more heat than the surrounding rural areas. And this is the average climate not the time. Thus, for example, the recent cold wave on the east coast was generated by the warmer temperatures in the Atlantic.
"None of these are captured by these analogs," says Andrew Jarvis, a scientist at CGIAR, an agricultural research institute. "So from the point of view of communication, this is one of the dangers." It is very simple. "And necessarily: climate systems are monumentally complex, even if little by little scientists are able to better understand how our planet will turn into climate change. A map alone can not communicate all that knowledge.
However, the idea with this new interactive map is to better visualize, both for ordinary citizens and politicians, what has previously been presented as an impenetrable data set. "I hope more than anything else is opening his eyes and starting more of these discussions so he can have more planning," says Fitzpatrick.
Climate change is here, and chaos is already triggering. Consider this, therefore, a roadmap to help navigate the chaos.
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