Our understanding of and experience with climate science, impacts, risks, and adaptation in the United States have grown significantly since the Third National Climate Assessment (NCA3), advancing our knowledge of key processes in the earth system, how human and natural forces are changing them, what the implications are for society, and how we can respond.
Key Scientific Advances
Detection and Attribution: Significant advances have been made in the attribution of the human influence for individual climate and weather extreme events (see . CSSR, Chs. 3, 6, 7, and 8)
Extreme Events and Atmospheric Circulation: How climate change may affect specific types of extreme events in the United States and the extent to which atmospheric circulation in the midlatitudes is changing or is projected to change, possibly in ways not captured by current climate models, are important areas of research where scientific understanding has advanced (see . CSSR, Chs. 5, 6, 7, and 9)
Localized Information: As computing resources have grown, projections of future climate from global models are now being conducted at finer scales (with resolution on the order of 15 miles), providing more realistic characterization of intense weather systems, including hurricanes. For the first time in the NCA process, sea level rise projections incorporate geographic variation based on factors such as local land subsidence, ocean currents, and changes in Earth’s gravitational field (see . CSSR, Chs. 9 and 12)
Ocean and Coastal Waters: Ocean acidification, warming, and oxygen loss are all increasing, and scientific understanding of the severity of their impacts is growing. Both oxygen loss and acidification may be magnified in some U.S. coastal waters relative to the global average, raising the risk of serious ecological and economic consequences (see . CSSR, Chs. 2 and 13)
Rapid Changes for Ice on Earth: New observations from many different sources confirm that ice loss across the globe is continuing and, in many cases, accelerating. Since NCA3, Antarctica and Greenland have continued to lose ice mass, with mounting evidence that mass loss is accelerating. Observations continue to show declines in the volume of mountain glaciers around the world. Annual September minimum sea ice extent in the Arctic Ocean has decreased at a rate of 11%–16% per decade since the early 1980s, with accelerating ice loss since 2000. The annual sea ice extent minimum for 2016 was the second lowest on record; the sea ice minimums in 2014 and 2015 were also among the lowest on record (see . CSSR, Chs. 1, 11, and 12)
Potential Surprises: Both large-scale shifts in the climate system (sometimes called “tipping points”) and compound extremes have the potential to generate outcomes that are difficult to anticipate and may have high consequences. The more the climate changes, the greater the potential for these surprises (see . CSSR, Ch. 15) Extreme Events
Climate change is altering the characteristics of many extreme weather and climate-related events. Some extreme events have already become more frequent, intense, widespread, or of longer duration, and many are expected to continue to increase or worsen, presenting substantial challenges for built, agricultural, and natural systems. Some storm types such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and winter storms are also exhibiting changes that have been linked to climate change, although the current state of the science does not yet permit detailed understanding
(see . Individual extreme weather and climate-related events—even those that have not been clearly attributed to climate change by scientific analyses—reveal risks to society and vulnerabilities that mirror those we expect in a warmer world. Non-climate stressors (such as land-use changes and shifting demographics) can also amplify the damages associated with extreme events. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that the United States has experienced 44 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters since 2015 (through April 6, 2018), incurring costs of nearly $400 billion ( CSSR, Executive Summary) https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/).
Hurricanes: The 2017 Atlantic Hurricane season alone is estimated to have caused more than $250 billion in damages and over 250 deaths throughout the U.S. Caribbean, Southeast, and Southern Great Plains. More than 30 inches of rain fell during Hurricane Harvey, affecting 6.9 million people. Hurricane Maria’s high winds caused widespread devastation to Puerto Rico’s transportation, agriculture, communication, and energy infrastructure. Extreme rainfall of up to 37 inches caused widespread flooding and mudslides across the island. The interruption to commerce and standard living conditions will be sustained for a long period while much of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure is rebuilt. Hurricane Irma destroyed 25% of buildings in the Florida Keys.
Damage from Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico
Photo taken during a reconnaissance flight of the island on September 23, 2017.
Photo credit: Sgt. Jose Ahiram Diaz-Ramos, Puerto Rico National Guard.
Floods: In August 2016, a historic flood resulting from 20 to 30 inches of rainfall over several days devastated a large area of southern Louisiana, causing over $10 billion in damages and 13 deaths. More than 30,000 people were rescued from floodwaters that damaged or destroyed more than 50,000 homes, 100,000 vehicles, and 20,000 businesses. In June 2016, torrential rainfall caused destructive flooding throughout many West Virginia towns, damaging thousands of homes and businesses and causing considerable loss of life. More than 1,500 roads and bridges were damaged or destroyed. The 2015–2016 El Niño poured 11 days of record-setting rainfall on Hawai‘i, causing severe urban flooding.
Drought: In 2015, drought conditions caused about $5 billion in damages across the Southwest and Northwest, as well as parts of the Northern Great Plains. California experienced the most severe drought conditions. Hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland remained fallow, and excess groundwater pumping was required to irrigate existing agricultural interests. Two years later, in 2017, extreme drought caused $2.5 billion in agricultural damages across the Northern Great Plains. Field crops, including wheat, were severely damaged, and the lack of feed for cattle forced ranchers to sell off livestock.
The Deadly Carr Fire
The Carr Fire (as seen over Shasta County, California, on August 4, 2018) damaged or destroyed more than 1,500 structures and resulted in several fatalities.
Photo credit: Sgt. Lani O. Pascual, U.S. Army National Guard.
Wildfires: During the summer of 2015, over 10.1 million acres—an area larger than the entire state of Maryland—burned across the United States, surpassing 2006 for the highest annual total of U.S. acreage burned since record keeping began in 1960. These wildfire conditions were exacerbated by the preceding drought conditions in several states. The most extensive wildfires occurred in Alaska, where 5 million acres burned within the state. In Montana, wildfires burned in excess of 1 million acres. The costliest wildfires occurred in California, where more than 2,500 structures were destroyed by the Valley and Butte Fires; insured losses alone exceeded $1 billion. In October 2017, a historic firestorm damaged or destroyed more than 15,000 homes, businesses, and other structures across California (see Figure 1.5). The Tubbs, Atlas, Nuns, and Redwood Valley Fires caused a total of 44 deaths, and their combined destruction represents the costliest wildfire event on record.
Tornadoes: In March 2017, a severe tornado outbreak caused damage across much of the Midwest and into the Northeast. Nearly 1 million customers lost power in Michigan alone due to sustained high winds, which affected several states from Illinois to New York.
Heat Waves: Honolulu experienced 24 days of record-setting heat during the 2015–2016 El Niño event. As a result, the local energy utility issued emergency public service announcements to curtail escalating air conditioning use that threatened the electrical grid. New Aspects of This Report
Hundreds of states, counties, cities, businesses, universities, and other entities are implementing actions that build resilience to climate-related impacts and risks, while also aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many of these actions have been informed by new climate-related tools and products developed through the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) since NCA3
(see ; we briefly highlight a few of them here. In addition, several structural changes have been introduced to the report and new methods used in response to stakeholder needs for more localized information and to address key gaps identified in NCA3. The Third National Climate Assessment remains a valuable and relevant resource—this report expands upon our knowledge and experience as presented four years ago. Appendix 3: Scenario Products and Data Tools)
Climate Science Special Report: Early in the development of NCA4, experts and Administration officials recognized that conducting a comprehensive physical science assessment (Volume I) in advance of an impacts assessment (Volume II) would allow one to inform the other. The , released in November 2017, is Volume I of NCA4 and represents the most thorough and up-to-date assessment of climate science in the United States and underpins the findings of this report; its findings are summarized in Climate Science Special Report Chapter 2 (Our Changing Climate). See the “Key Scientific Advances” section in this box and Box 2.3 in Chapter 2 for more detail.
Scenario Products: As described in more detail in , federal interagency groups developed a suite of high-resolution scenario products that span a range of plausible future changes in key environmental variables through at least 2100. These USGCRP scenario products help ensure consistency across the report and improve the ability to synthesize across chapters. Where possible, authors have used these scenario products to frame uncertainty in future climate as it relates to the risks that are the focus of their chapters. In addition, the Indicators Interagency Working Group has developed an Indicators platform that uses observations or calculations to monitor conditions or trends in the earth system, just as businesses might use the unemployment index as an indicator of economic conditions (see Figure 1.2 and Appendix 3 (Data Tools & Scenario Products) https://www.globalchange.gov/browse/indicators).
Localized Information: With the increased focus on local and regional information in NCA4, USGCRP agencies developed two additional products that not only inform this assessment but can serve as valuable decision-support tools. The first are the State Climate Summaries—a peer-reviewed collection of climate change information covering all ten NCA4 regions at the state level. In addition to standard data on observed and projected climate change, each State Climate Summary contains state-specific changes and their related impacts as well as a suite of complementary graphics ( stateclimatesummaries.globalchange.gov).
The second product is the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit,
which offers data-driven tools, information, and subject-matter expertise from across the Federal Government in one easy-to-use location, so Americans are better able to understand the climate-related risks and opportunities impacting their communities and can make more informed decisions on how to respond. In particular, the case studies showcase examples of climate change impacts and accompanying response actions that complement those presented in Figure 1.1 and allow communities to learn how to build resilience from one another.
New Chapters: In response to public feedback on NCA3 and input solicited in the early stages of this assessment, a number of significant structural changes have been made. Most fundamentally, the balance of the report’s focus has shifted from national-level chapters to regional chapters in response to a growing desire for more localized information on impacts. Building on this theme, the Great Plains chapter has been split into Northern and Southern chapters ( Chapters 22 and 23) along the Kansas–Nebraska border. In addition, the U.S. Caribbean is now featured as a separate region in this report ( Chapter 20), focusing on the unique impacts, risks, and response capabilities in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Public input also requested greater international context in the report, which has been addressed through two new additions. A new chapter focuses on topics including the effects of climate change on U.S. trade and businesses, national security, and U.S. humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (
Chapter 16). A new international appendix ( Appendix 4) presents a number of illustrative examples of how other countries have conducted national climate assessments, putting our own effort into a global context.
Given recent scientific advances, some emerging topics warranted a more visible platform in NCA4. A new chapter on Air Quality (
Chapter 13) examines how traditional air pollutants are affected by climate change. A new chapter on Sector Interactions, Multiple Stressors, and Complex Systems ( Chapter 17) evaluates climate-related risks to interconnected human and natural systems that are increasingly vulnerable to cascading impacts and highlights advances in analyzing how these systems will interact with and respond to a changing environment (see Box 1.3).
Integrating Economics: This report, to a much greater degree than previous National Climate Assessments, includes broader and more systematic quantification of climate change impacts in economic terms. While this is an emerging body of literature that is not yet reflected in each of the 10 NCA regions, it represents a valuable advancement in our understanding of the financial costs and benefits of climate change impacts. Figure 1.21 provides an illustration of the type of economic information that is integrated throughout this report. It shows the financial damages avoided under a lower scenario (RCP4.5) versus a higher scenario (RCP8.5).
Figure 1.21: New Economic Impact Studies
Bar graphs and maps show the annual economic impact that climate change could have due to lost labor and worsened air quality. The bar graph shows that for labor, annual economic damages by 2090 are projected to be about 150 billion dollars under the higher RCP8.5 scenarios and around 80 billion dollars under the lower RCP4.5 scenario. For air quality, annual economic damages by 2090 are projected to be about 25 billion dollars under the RCP8.5 scenario and about 17 billion dollars under RCP4.5. The labor map shows a loss in hours worked across the nation, with the biggest decreases of 5 or more hours occurring in southern Texas and most of Florida. The air quality map shows an increase in daily 8-hour ozone concentrations throughout much of the continental United States but with decreases shown for much of the California coast, most of Texas, the Southeast region, and most of Maine. Changes are largely neutral in Nevada and much of Oregon.
Figure 1.21: Annual economic impact estimates are shown for labor and air quality. The bar graph on the left shows national annual damages in 2090 (in billions of 2015 dollars) for a higher scenario (RCP8.5) and lower scenario (RCP4.5); the difference between the height of the RCP8.5 and RCP4.5 bars for a given category represents an estimate of the economic benefit to the United States from global mitigation action. For these two categories, damage estimates do not consider costs or benefits of new adaptation actions to reduce impacts, and they do not include Alaska, Hawaiʻi and U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands, or the U.S. Caribbean. The maps on the right show regional variation in annual impacts projected under the higher scenario (RCP8.5) in 2090. The map on the top shows the percent change in hours worked in high-risk industries as compared to the period 2003–2007. The hours lost result in economic damages: for example, $28 billion per year in the Southern Great Plains. The map on the bottom is the change in summer-average maximum daily 8-hour ozone concentrations (ppb) at ground-level as compared to the period 1995–2005. These changes in ozone concentrations result in premature deaths: for example, an additional 910 premature deaths each year in the Midwest. Source: EPA, 2017. Multi-Model Framework for Quantitative Sectoral Impacts Analysis: A Technical Report for the Fourth National Climate Assessment. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA 430-R-17-001.