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September 3, 2021

The enormity of the challenge posed by climate change makes it difficult to visualize and understand on the ground. Even though wide-ranging impacts are visible today, it’s hard to envision how tomorrow’s changes will take shape. What will the temperature be in Portland in the spring, or how much rain might Dallas get in the fall? The USGS has a tool that can help address that challeng

The USGS National Climate Change Viewer (NCCV) is a web-based application that provides easy access to succinct information about possible future climate change. In the updated viewer, users can view, analyze, and download past and projected climate and hydrologic data for the period from 1950 through 2099 for two future greenhouse gas (GHG) emission scenarios. Its applications extend to resource managers, planners, and researchers, but it’s an interesting tool for any member of the public who wants to envision future scenarios.

Image shows a screenshot of the national climate change viewer website
The USGS National Climate Change Viewer.

The Viewer’s Characteristics and Utility

The climate projections included in the USGS NCCV are based on global climate model simulations conducted by 20 worldwide modeling centers that contributed to the 5th Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Report (IPCC). The IPCC report represents some of the most comprehensive insights of the planet’s climate system and include various scenarios for future changes to the climate based on different levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

The viewer includes climate and hydrologic data for two GHG emissions scenarios in the IPCC report. These data come from Representative Concentration Pathways, RCPs, which are trajectories of the amount of GHGs that will be emitted during the 21st century. These trajectories are based on the IPCC report’s assumptions about societal choices, population growth, energy use, existing and future technology, and land-use change. One scenario, called RCP4.5, describes a situation in which GHG emissions begin to curtail and stabilize in the next few decades. The second, RCP8.5, explores outcomes if there are little to no reductions in GHG emissions—and thus represents an extreme case or upper-bound of what is possible.

Both scenarios are widely used by scientists to project future climate and its potential impacts. As there is a high degree of uncertainty about future greenhouse gas emissions through the 21st century, and the choice of scenario determines the magnitude of climate change (in other words, the amount of warming by the end of the century), the two scenarios in the NCCV provide a plausible range of climate change for analysis and planning.

Image: Vegetation Drought
Warming temperatures are expected to increase the risk and intensity of drought. (Credit: USGS. Public domain.)

Planning for Climate Change

The ease of use and clear results of the USGS NCCV have already been put into practice by land and resource managers throughout the United States. For example, in the West, climate change is expected to increase drought severity, increase risk of wildfires, negatively affect native fish and wildlife, and decrease water availability. A recently published climate assessment report led by the USGS and Montana State University, which used the climate and hydrologic data from the NCCV, details some of the observed and projected impacts on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of the last remaining large and nearly intact temperate ecosystems on Earth.

The NCCV is also being used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in species status assessments, by the USGS for climate research, and by the National Park Service to communicate climate change information to state and federal resource managers, and as a college-level teaching tool.

Many people placing fire instruments wrapped in fireproof coverings to record data from wildfires
Warming temperatures are expected to increase the risk and intensity of wildfires. (Image Credit: Rachel Loehman, USGS. Public domain.)

Recent Updates and Improvements

A suite of improvements makes NCCV an even better tool for resource managers, as it can help them consider the context of climate change when developing strategic management plans. The latest NCCV updates feature new climate and hydrologic data and new statistical information in the data tables and graphs. Downloadable reports have been expanded for any given area of interest.

The viewer can be accessed here. More information about USGS research relating to climate change, including changing ecosystems, paleoclimate, land-use and land cover change, and the changing cryosphere, can be found here. To stay up-to-date on USGS climate research, sign-up for our newsletter.  

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