Report details current and near-term warming effects in US
- Published Wednesday, May 28, 2008, by the Washington Post
Report Details Effects of Climate Change Across U.S.
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Global warming is already affecting the nation's forests, water
resources, farmland and wildlife, and will have serious negative
consequences over the next 25 to 50 years, according to a report
issued yesterday by the federal government.
The scientific assessment by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program,
which was commissioned by the Agriculture Department and carried
out by 38 scientists inside and outside the government, provides the
most detailed look in nearly eight years at how climate change is
reshaping the American landscape. The report, which runs 193 pages
and synthesizes a thousand scientific papers, highlights how human-
generated carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels have
already translated into more frequent forest fires, reduced snowpack
and increased drought, especially in the West.
Anthony C. Janetos, director of the Joint Global Change Research
Institute of the University of Maryland and the Pacific Northwest
National Laboratory, said the document aims to inform federal
resource managers and dispel the public's perception that global
warming will not be felt until years from now.
"They imagine all these ecological impacts are in some distant
future," said Janetos, one of the lead authors, who noted that many
animals and plants have shifted their migratory and blooming patterns
to reflect recent changes in temperature. "They're not in some
distant future. We're experiencing them now."
The document concludes that Americans must face the fact that many
of these changes are locked in even if the country takes significant
steps to cut emissions in the coming decades.
"Climate change is currently impacting the nation's ecosystems and
services in significant ways, and those alterations are very likely
to accelerate in the future, in some cases dramatically," the report
says. "Even under the most optimistic CO2emission scenarios,
important changes in sea level, regional and super-regional
temperatures and precipitation patterns will have profound effects."
Richard Moss, vice president and managing director for climate change
at the advocacy group World Wildlife Fund, said in an interview that
the report represents "the very first upfront acknowledgment from
the administration that we are already experiencing climate change
As recently as July 2007, the administration submitted a report to
the United Nations that omitted any discussion of how global warming
will affect wildfires, heat waves, agriculture or snowpack.
Moss, who led the U.S. Climate Change Science Program coordination
office during both the Clinton and Bush administrations, praised the
program for producing the analysis, which is part of a long-delayed
series of official climate reports. "At the same time," he added, "we
all need to be looking at how the administration now intends to use
the results of this information, because it really is worrisome."
The researchers said that of 1,598 animal species examined in more
than 800 studies, nearly 60 percent were found to have been affected
by climate change.
In addition, the number and frequency of forest fires and insect
outbreaks are "increasing in the interior West, the Southwest, and
Alaska," while "precipitation, stream flow, and stream temperatures
are increasing in most of the continental United States" and snowpack
is declining in the West.
The Agriculture Department, the study's lead sponsor, issued a
statement yesterday highlighting some of the report's findings for
farmers, noting that the higher temperatures mean that grain and
oilseed crops will mature more rapidly but face an increased risk
of failure and "will negatively affect livestock."
"The report issued today provides practical information that will
help landowners and resource managers make better decisions to
address the risks of climate change," said Agriculture Department
chief economist Joseph Glauber.
Agriculture Department spokesman William Hohenstein said the
department is already incorporating climate change into all of its
national forest management plans, and it is drafting a strategic
research plan aimed at coping with global warming. "We will use this
as a springboard in terms of identifying the questions we're going
to focus on" for the strategic plan, he said of the report.
Peter Backlund, another of the report's lead authors and director of
research relations at the National Center for Atmospheric Research,
said in an interview that the Departments of Agriculture and Interior
and other federal agencies will be tested by changing climate
conditions on both public and private land.
"This is going to be a big challenge for agencies that haven't
traditionally been big players in climate," Backlund said, adding
the government's monitoring systems can chart major changes but are
insufficient to serve as a climate warning system. "We lack the
ability to identify the more subtle changes that are happening
that could be much larger in the future. ... We're pulling this
information from systems that weren't designed to look at that."
The report predicts that some of the nation's most valued landscapes
may change radically in the near future as precipitation and weather
patterns continue to shift.
"Management of Western reservoir systems is very likely to become
more challenging as runoff patterns continue to change," it states.
"Arid areas are very likely to experience increased erosion and fire
risk. In arid ecosystems that have not co-evolved with a fire cycle,
the probability of loss of iconic, charismatic megaflora such as
Saguaro cacti and Joshua trees will greatly increase."
One of the greatest challenges land managers will face over the next
few decades, Janetos said, is uncertainty.
"You can't really assume anymore the climate is going to be familiar
or similar to what we've seen over the 20th century," he said. "We're
moving into new territory."