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An empirical perspective for understanding climate change impacts in Switzerland

July 17, 2017

Planning for the future requires a detailed understanding of how climate change affects a wide range of systems at spatial scales that are relevant to humans. Understanding of climate change impacts can be gained from observational and reconstruction approaches and from numerical models that apply existing knowledge to climate change scenarios. Although modeling approaches are prominent in climate change assessments, observations and reconstructions provide insights that cannot be derived from simulations alone, especially at local to regional scales where climate adaptation policies are implemented. Here, we review the wealth of understanding that emerged from observations and reconstructions of ongoing and past climate change impacts in Switzerland, with wider applicability in Europe. We draw examples from hydrological, alpine, forest, and agricultural systems, which are of paramount societal importance, and are projected to undergo important changes by the end of this century. For each system, we review existing model-based projections, present what is known from observations, and discuss how empirical evidence may help improve future projections. A particular focus is given to better understanding thresholds, tipping points and feedbacks that may operate on different time scales. Observational approaches provide the grounding in evidence that is needed to develop local to regional climate adaptation strategies. Our review demonstrates that observational approaches should ideally have a synergistic relationship with modeling in identifying inconsistencies in projections as well as avenues for improvement. They are critical for uncovering unexpected relationships between climate and agricultural, natural, and hydrological systems that will be important to society in the future.