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New Climate Change Forecasts

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Detailed Description

Climate change is happening across the entire Nation and is projected to continue in the future with widespread impacts.

USGS Chief Scientist for Global Change Research Virginia Burkett fills us in on a new report that provides the most current climate change projections, outlines potential impacts, and provides recommendations for future actions.




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Jessica Robertson: Hello and welcome to the USGS CoreCast. I'm Jessica Robertson.

Climate change is apparent across the entire nation and is projected to continue in the future. A new report provides the most current climate change projections, outlines potential impacts, and makes recommendations for future actions. The report was sponsored by the US Global Change Research Program and the USGS led the regional chapters focusing on Alaska and the Southeast.

Today we are joined on the phone by USGS Chief Scientist for Global Change Research, Virginia Burkett, to discuss this report. Welcome, Virginia.

Virginia Burkett: Thanks, Jessica! It's great to be here.

Jessica Robertson: So first, Virginia, can you give us an overview of the report?

Virginia Burkett: This report basically summarizes the science of climate change and its impacts in the United States now and in the future. It is based primarily on the 21 assessment products produced by the US government over the past five years. It discusses climate-related impacts for various sectors of the economy like agriculture as well as all of the major regions of the country like the Northeast, the Southwest, Alaska and so forth.


Jessica Robertson: And what were the most significant findings of this report?

Virginia Burkett: The report documents changes in recent decades in rising temperatures, the increase in the intensity of rainfall events for most regions, rising sea levels, longer growing seasons, changes in the distribution of plant and animal populations, reductions in snow and ice in Alaska, for example, and changes in the streamflow, particularly the timing in snowmelt-dominated watersheds like out West. The scientific certainty associated with these impacts in our assessment of future changes is also much greater.

One example of the increased consonants level in our projections is in Alaska. The tremendous changes that are already underway in terms of the increase in temperature and the changes in ecosystems, the outbreaks of bark beetles, for example, and the tremendous loss of forest that had been experienced as the temperature has risen in Alaska.


Another example would be in the arid Southwest where droughts are already a problem and there's huge competition for water resources, and the report that was just published here basically says that those sorts of water shortages are likely to intensify.

Jessica Robertson: Virginia, can you tell us what these findings mean for the general public?

Virginia Burkett: Oh, I think this report will be meaningful to the general public because people will be able to look at their own state, you know. In Kentucky, for example, and Tennessee, the differences between the east and west parts of the state, there's a slightly different outcome in terms of precipitation.

So I think people will be able to look at the maps that we've produced and anticipate how temperature and precipitation might change in their backyards.


Jessica Robertson: And how are the conclusions for this report formed?

Virginia Burkett: This report is basically the synthesis of knowledge about climate change and its impacts in the United States. It was developed by a team of 32 scientists and the report itself represents the consensus of these scientists. But more than that, it's the synthesis of the literature about climate change and its impacts in the United States based on the IPCC report and the US Global Change reports that were produced over the past five years. All 21 reports are reflected here.

Jessica Robertson: Now the USGS was a contributor to this report. Well, what exactly was our role?

Virginia Burkett: Well, the report was produced by the US Global Change Research Program, which is comprised of 13 federal agencies. NOAA led the development of the report and USGS produced the Southeast chapter and the Alaska regional chapters.


Also, the science produced by the USGS is highlighted in many sections of the report like the coastal chapter and the water chapter. The US Geological Survey led or co-led six of the reports that served as a foundation for this entire document.

Jessica Robertson: Virginia, what does this report tell us regarding preparing for future climate change and related impacts?

Virginia Burkett: I believe the report will serve as a foundation for adaptation to climate change in many US regions and among some sectors like agriculture. Because of the downscaling that we've done with the climate models to a regional level, it will help people anticipate and prepare for climate change.

Adaptation is important because even if emissions of fossil fuels are reduced and leveled off at today's rate, the climate will continue to warm for the next 30 to 40 years because of the changes that have already been made to the atmosphere. So adaptation is important because it will minimize the adverse effects of climate change on our economy, as well as communities and natural resources.


Jessica Robertson: And also, what future research is needed?

Virginia Burkett: At the end of the report, we highlight several key research needs or information gaps, you could call them, one of which is the rate of decline of land ice. In Greenland, for example, the rate of the decline of the Greenland ice sheet is very important in understanding how fast sea level will rise.

A second key issue is to re-find our ability to project climate change at a more local level. Another research objective is to improve our understanding of thresholds that are likely to lead to abrupt changes in the climate or in ecosystem responses.


And finally, we recommend that we enhance our understanding of how society can adapt to climate change. Identifying impacts is one thing, but helping society evaluate alternatives in terms of adaptation strategies is relatively a new direction for global change science in the United States.

Jessica Robertson: In your opinion, Virginia, what is the most interesting part of this report?

Virginia Burkett: The most interesting part to me was looking at the regional effects based upon the downscaled climate models. We had not been able to do this in the past and that was very exciting because not only did we look at temperature and precipitation, we looked at derivatives of the climate models so that we could anticipate and produce scenarios of how wildfires might change through the future. Changes in the number of freezing days, for example. We were able to do a lot more of the climate models than we've done in past US assessments. 


Jessica Robertson: Well thank you for joining us today, Virginia.

Virginia Burkett: Oh, it's been my pleasure. Thanks!

Jessica Robertson: And thank you to all of our listeners who joined us for this episode of CoreCast. As Virginia previously discussed, the USGS contributed to several reports that were used as a basis for this document.

But don't forget to listen to our previous CoreCasts on the three USGS-led reports, and those are episodes 82, 84 and 87. Those reports focused on past climate change and variability in the Arctic and the high latitudes, the potential for abrupt climate changes in the 21st Century, and climate change impacts to ecosystems and responses including insight to outbreaks, wildfire, and forest dieback.

If you would like to know more about this report and other synthesis and assessment products, visit The report discussed today is Unified Synthesis and Assessment Product, titled "Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States".


As always, CoreCast is a product of the US Geological Survey, Department of the Interior.


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