Tuesday, May 6, 2014

National Climate Assessment Released

The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) coordinates and integrates federal research on climate change and its impact for the nation.  As mandated by the Global Change Research Act of 1990, the USGCRP also produces a report to the President and Congress known as the National Climate Assessment (NCA) every four years.

Today, the USGCRP released its Third National Climate Assessment, which is available for download or web browsing (see also coverage by the Capital Weather Gang).  Given the release of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report just a few months ago, the NCA doesn't contain anything all that surprising, but does provide yet another perspective on our warming world.

One of the key areas of improved scientific understanding in the past several years concerns the role of human and natural influences in driving global climate change.  As summarized in Chapter 2: Our Current Climate:
"Natural drivers of climate cannot explain the recent observed warming.  Over the last five decades, natural factors (solar forcing and volcanoes) alone would actually have led to slight cooling.  The majority of the warming at the global scale over the past 50 years can only be explained by the effects of human influences, especially the emissions from burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) and from deforestation."
Multiple lines of evidence support this conclusion, including climate model simulations with and without human factors shown below.
Observed global average changes (black line), model simulations using only changes in natural factors (solar and volcanic) in green, and model simulations with the addition of human-induced emissions (blue). Climate changes since 1950 cannot be explained by natural factors or variability, and can only be explained by human factors. (Figure source: adapted from Huber and Knutti).  Figure and caption source: Walsh et al. (2014), The Third National Climate Assessment.
Additional indicators of climate change in the United States discussed in the report include:
  • An increase in the average temperature of 1.3–1.9ºF since 1895 (most of this increase has occurred since 1970), with the last decade the nation's warmest on record.
  • An increase in the frost-free growing seasons since the 1980s, with the largest increase over the western United States.
  • An increase in heavy downpour frequency, especially in the last three to five decades with the largest increases in the midwest and northeast.
  • More frequent and intense heat waves and less frequent and intense cold waves.  
The report also notes that the intensity and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes, and the frequency of Category 4 or 5 hurricanes have increased since the early 1980s, but that the relative contribution of human and natural causes to these trends is uncertain.  Trends in other severe storms (tornadoes, hail, damaging thunderstorm winds) are also uncertain.

One conclusion that I think may be misleading is "winter storms have increased in frequency and intensity since the 1950s, and their tracks have shifted northward over the United States."  This statement is based on trends in extratropical cyclones, low-pressure systems that develop in the mid and high latitudes, and not trends in low temperature precipitation events that produce snow, sleet, or freezing rain, which is what I think of when I hear the term winter storm.  Although I suspect the authors were trying to avoid the use of a jargony term like extratropical cyclone, this was an instance where they probably should have been more specific.  To date, trends in the frequency of heavy snowstorms and seasonal snowfall show considerable regional variability and are difficult to generalize for the nation (this is discussed in the relevant sections of the report).  

Perhaps we'll have a look at the projections for future climate change in a forthcoming post.  


  1. "including climate model simulations with and without natural factors shown below"

    I think you meant "...with and without human factors...", correct?

    1. Egad...yes. Thanks for clarifying. I'll update the text.

  2. Well, I am going to wade into this mess by saying that I don't quite agree with the "natural" / "human" factor distinction. Has human activity influenced global climate? Some will say definitely. Others will say "No way". Me, I tend toward probably. But, are not humans part of the natural world? What is the difference between an ant colony and downtown Hong Kong? Not much, except scale when you think about it. So why is it "bad" and unnatural when humans build a damn, and "good" and natural when beavers make a damn. Not much is different except the scale of the thing.

    I would much prefer a "human" / "Nonhuman" distinction, if one needs to be made. In the long run, good old Mother Nature will solve the problem by eliminating humans, much in the same way that Neanderthals were eliminated. After all, I do not see the population of the planet decreasing significantly any time in the near future nor do I see the wasteful, self centered nature of humans changing anytime soon.