This website is the digital version of the 2014 National Climate Assessment, produced in collaboration with the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

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Welcome to the National Climate Assessment

The National Climate Assessment summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States, now and in the future.

A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.

Explore the effects of climate change
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Future Climate Change

Global climate is projected to continue to change – how much depends primarily on the amount of heat-trapping gases emitted globally.

Explore projections of future climate.

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Convening Lead Authors

John Walsh, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Donald Wuebbles, University of Illinois

Lead Authors

Katharine Hayhoe, Texas Tech University

James Kossin, NOAA, National Climatic Data Center

Kenneth Kunkel, CICS-NC, North Carolina State Univ., NOAA National Climatic Data Center

Graeme Stephens, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Peter Thorne, Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center

Russell Vose, NOAA National Climatic Data Center

Michael Wehner, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Josh Willis, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Contributing Authors

David Anderson, NOAA, National Climatic Data Center

Scott Doney, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Richard Feely, NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory

Paula Hennon, CICS-NC, North Carolina State Univ., NOAA National Climatic Data Center

Viatcheslav Kharin, Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis, Environment Canada

Thomas Knutson, NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory

Felix Landerer, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Tim Lenton, Exeter University

John Kennedy, UK Meteorological Office

Richard Somerville, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Univ. of California, San Diego

Introduction

This chapter summarizes how climate is changing, why it is changing, and what is projected for the future. While the focus is on changes in the United States, the need to provide context sometimes requires a broader geographical perspective. Additional geographic detail is presented in the regional chapters of this report. Further details on the topics covered by this chapter are provided in the Climate Science Supplement and Frequently Asked Questions Appendices.

The chapter presents 12 key messages about our changing climate, together with supporting evidence for those messages. The discussion of each key message begins with a summary of recent variations or trends, followed by projections of the corresponding changes for the future.

Key Message 2: Future Climate Change

Global climate is projected to continue to change over this century and beyond. The magnitude of climate change beyond the next few decades depends primarily on the amount of heat-trapping gases emitted globally, and how sensitive the Earth’s climate is to those emissions.

Supporting Evidence
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Supporting Evidence

Process for Developing Key Messages

Development of the key messages involved discussions of the lead authors and accompanying analyses conducted via one in-person meeting plus multiple teleconferences and email exchanges from February thru September 2012. The authors reviewed 80 technical inputs provided by the public, as well as other published literature, and applied their professional judgment.

Key message development also involved the findings from four special workshops that related to the latest scientific understanding of climate extremes. Each workshop had a different theme related to climate extremes, had approximately 30 attendees (the CMIP5 meeting had more than 100), and the workshops resulted in a paper.5 The first workshop was held in July 2011, titled Monitoring Changes in Extreme Storm Statistics: State of Knowledge.6 The second was held in November 2011, titled Forum on Trends and Causes of Observed Changes in Heatwaves, Coldwaves, Floods, and Drought.7 The third was held in January 2012, titled Forum on Trends in Extreme Winds, Waves, and Extratropical Storms along the Coasts.8 The fourth, the CMIP5 results workshop, was held in March 2012 in Hawai‘i, and resulted in an analysis of CMIP5 results relative to climate extremes in the United States.5

The Chapter Author Team’s discussions were supported by targeted consultation with additional experts. Professional expertise and judgment led to determining “key vulnerabilities.” A consensus-based approach was used for final key message selection.

Description of evidence base

The key message and supporting text summarizes extensive evidence documented in the climate science peer-reviewed literature. Technical Input reports (82) on a wide range of topics were also reviewed; they were received as part of the Federal Register Notice solicitation for public input.

Evidence of continued global warming is based on past observations of climate change and our knowledge of the climate system’s response to heat-trapping gases. Models have projected increased temperature under a number of different scenarios.1,2,3

That the planet has warmed is “unequivocal,”1 and is corroborated though multiple lines of evidence, as is the conclusion that the causes are very likely human in origin (see also Appendices 3 and 4). The evidence for future warming is based on fundamental understanding of the behavior of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. Model simulations provide bounds on the estimates of this warming.

New information and remaining uncertainties

The trends described in the 2009 report4 have continued, and our understanding of the data and ability to model the many facets of the climate system have increased substantially.

There are several major sources of uncertainty in making projections of climate change. The relative importance of these changes over time.

In the next few decades, the effects of natural variability will be an important source of uncertainty for climate change projections.

Uncertainty in future human emissions becomes the largest source of uncertainty by the end of this century.

Uncertainty in how sensitive the climate is to increased concentrations of heat-trapping gases is especially important beyond the next few decades. Recent evidence lends further confidence about climate sensitivity (see Appendix 3: Climate Science Supplement).

Uncertainty in natural climate drivers, for example how much solar output will change over this century, also affects the accuracy of projections.

Assessment of confidence based on evidence

Given the evidence base and remaining uncertainties, confidence is very high that the global climate is projected to continue to change over this century and beyond.

The statement on the magnitude of the effect also has very high confidence.

Confidence Level

Very High

Strong evidence (established theory, multiple sources, consistent results, well documented and accepted methods, etc.), high consensus

High

Moderate evidence (several sources, some consistency, methods vary and/or documentation limited, etc.), medium consensus

Medium

Suggestive evidence (a few sources, limited consistency, models incomplete, methods emerging, etc.), competing schools of thought

Low

Inconclusive evidence (limited sources, extrapolations, inconsistent findings, poor documentation and/or methods not tested, etc.), disagreement or lack of opinions among experts

Future Climate Change

A certain amount of continued warming of the planet is projected to occur as a result of human-induced emissions to date; another 0.5°F increase would be expected over the next few decades even if all emissions from human activities suddenly stopped,11 although natural variability could still play an important role over this time period.12 However, choices made now and in the next few decades will determine the amount of additional future warming. Beyond mid-century, lower levels of heat-trapping gases in scenarios with reduced emissions will lead to noticeably less future warming. Higher emissions levels will result in more warming, and thus more severe impacts on human society and the natural world.

Confidence in projections of future climate change has increased. The wider range of potential changes in global average temperature in the latest generation of climate model simulations2 used in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) current assessment – versus those in the previous assessment1 – is simply a result of considering more options for future human behavior. For example, one of the scenarios included in the IPCC’s latest assessment assumes aggressive emissions reductions designed to limit the global temperature increase to 3.6°F (2°C) above pre-industrial levels.3 This path would require rapid emissions reductions (more than 70% reduction in human-related emissions by 2050, and net negative emissions by 2100 – see the Appendix 3: Climate Science, Supplemental Message 5) sufficient to achieve heat-trapping gas concentrations well below those of any of the scenarios considered by the IPCC in its 2007 assessment. Such scenarios enable the investigation of climate impacts that would be avoided by deliberate, substantial reductions in heat-trapping gas emissions.

Figure 2.4: Emissions Levels Determine Temperature Rises

Emissions Levels Determine Temperature Rises

Figure 2.4: Different amounts of heat-trapping gases released into the atmosphere by human activities produce different projected increases in Earth’s temperature. In the figure, each line represents a central estimate of global average temperature rise (relative to the 1901-1960 average) for a specific emissions pathway. Shading indicates the range (5th to 95th percentile) of results from a suite of climate models. Projections in 2099 for additional emissions pathways are indicated by the bars to the right of each panel. In all cases, temperatures are expected to rise, although the difference between lower and higher emissions pathways is substantial. (Left) The panel shows the two main scenarios (SRES – Special Report on Emissions Scenarios) used in this report: A2 assumes continued increases in emissions throughout this century, and B1 assumes much slower increases in emissions beginning now and significant emissions reductions beginning around 2050, though not due explicitly to climate change policies. (Right) The panel shows newer analyses, which are results from the most recent generation of climate models (CMIP5) using the most recent emissions pathways (RCPs – Representative Concentration Pathways). Some of these new projections explicitly consider climate policies that would result in emissions reductions, which the SRES set did not.9,10 The newest set includes both lower and higher pathways than did the previous set. The lowest emissions pathway shown here, RCP 2.6, assumes immediate and rapid reductions in emissions and would result in about 2.5°F of warming in this century. The highest pathway, RCP 8.5, roughly similar to a continuation of the current path of global emissions increases, is projected to lead to more than 8°F warming by 2100, with a high-end possibility of more than 11°F. (Data from CMIP3, CMIP5, and NOAA NCDC).

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Figure 2.5: Projected Change in Average Annual Temperature

Projected Change in Average Annual Temperature

Rapid Emissions Reductions (RCP 2.6)Continued Emissions Increases (RCP 8.5)

Figure 2.5: Projected change in average annual temperature over the period 2071-2099 (compared to the period 1970-1999) under a low scenario that assumes rapid reductions in emissions and concentrations of heat-trapping gases (RCP 2.6), and a higher scenario that assumes continued increases in emissions (RCP 8.5). (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).

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Projections of future changes in precipitation show small increases in the global average but substantial shifts in where and how precipitation falls. Generally, areas closest to the poles are projected to receive more precipitation, while the dry subtropics (the region just outside the tropics, between 23° and 35° on either side of the equator) expand toward the poles and receive less rain. Increases in tropical precipitation are projected during rainy seasons (such as monsoons), especially over the tropical Pacific. Certain regions, including the western U.S. (especially the Southwest4) and the Mediterranean, are presently dry and are expected to become drier. The widespread trend of increasing heavy downpours is expected to continue, with precipitation becoming less frequent but more intense.13,14,15,16 The patterns of the projected changes of precipitation do not contain the spatial details that characterize observed precipitation, especially in mountainous terrain, because the projections are averages from multiple models and because the effective resolution of global climate models is roughly 100-200 miles.

Figure 2.6: Projected Change in Average Annual Precipitation

Projected Change in Average Annual Precipitation

Rapid Emissions Reductions (RCP 2.6)Continued Emissions Increases (RCP 8.5)

Figure 2.6: Projected change in average annual precipitation over the period 2071-2099 (compared to the period 1970-1999) under a low scenario that assumes rapid reductions in emissions and concentrations of heat-trapping gasses (RCP 2.6), and a higher scenario that assumes continued increases in emissions (RCP 8.5). Hatched areas indicate confidence that the projected changes are significant and consistent among models. White areas indicate that the changes are not projected to be larger than could be expected from natural variability. In general, northern parts of the U.S. (especially the Northeast and Alaska) are projected to receive more precipitation, while southern parts (especially the Southwest) are projected to receive less. (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).

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One important determinant of how much climate will change is the effect of so-called “feedbacks” in the climate system, which can either dampen or amplify the initial effect of human influences on temperature. One important climate feedback is the loss of summer Arctic sea ice, allowing absorption of substantially more of the sun’s heat in the Arctic, increasing warming, and possibly causing changes in weather patterns over the United States.

The observed drastic reduction in sea ice can also lead to a “tipping point” – a point beyond which an abrupt or irreversible transition to a different climatic state occurs. In this case, the dramatic loss of sea ice could tip the Arctic Ocean into a permanent, nearly ice-free state in summer, with repercussions that may extend far beyond the Arctic. Such potential “tipping points” have been identified in various components of the Earth’s climate system and could have important effects on future climate. The extent and magnitude of these potential effects are still unknown. These are discussed further in the Appendix 4: Frequently Asked Questions, under Question T.

Climate Sensitivity

“Climate sensitivity” is an important concept because it helps us estimate how much warming might be expected for a given increase in the amount of heat-trapping gases. It is defined as the amount of warming expected if carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations doubled from pre-industrial levels and then remained constant until Earth’s temperature reached a new equilibrium over timescales of centuries to millennia. Climate sensitivity accounts for feedbacks in the climate system that can either dampen or amplify warming. The feedbacks primarily determining that response are related to water vapor, ice and snow reflectivity, and clouds.1 Cloud feedbacks have the largest uncertainty. The net effect of these feedbacks is expected to amplify warming.1

Climate sensitivity has long been estimated to be in the range of 2.7°F to 8.1°F. As discussed in the Climate Science Appendix, recent evidence lends further confidence in this range.

References

  1. Boberg, F., P. Berg, P. Thejll, W. J. Gutowski, and J. H. Christensen, 2009: Improved confidence in climate change projections of precipitation evaluated using daily statistics from the PRUDENCE ensemble. Climate Dynamics, 32, 1097-1106, doi:10.1007/s00382-008-0446-y. URL

  2. Collins, M., R. Knutti, J. M. Arblaster, J. - L. Dufresne, T. Fichefet, F. P., X. Gao, W. J. Gutowski, T. Johns, G. Krinner, M. Shongwe, C. Tebaldi, A. J. Weaver, and M. Wehner, 2013: Ch. 12: Long-term climate change: Projections, commitments and irreversibility. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, T.F. Stocker, D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung,. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex, and P.M. Midgley, Eds., Cambridge University Press, 1029-1136. URL

  3. Gutowski, W. J., E. S. Takle, K. A. Kozak, J. C. Patton, R. W. Arritt, and J. H. Christensen, 2007: A possible constraint on regional precipitation intensity changes under global warming. Journal of Hydrometeorology, 8, 1382-1396, doi:10.1175/2007jhm817.1. URL

  4. Hawkins, E., and R. Sutton, 2011: The potential to narrow uncertainty in projections of regional precipitation change. Climate Dynamics, 37, 407-418, doi:10.1007/s00382-010-0810-6.

  5. IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. S. Solomon, D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor, and H.L. Miller, Eds. Cambridge University Press, 996 pp. URL

  6. IPCC, 2007: Summary for Policymakers. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, S. Solomon, D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor, and H.L. Miller, Eds., Cambridge University Press, 1-18. URL

  7. Karl, T. R., J. T. Melillo, and T. C. Peterson, 2009: Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. T.R. Karl, J.T. Melillo, and T.C. Peterson, Eds. Cambridge University Press, 189 pp. URL

  8. Kunkel, K. E. et al., 2013: Monitoring and understanding trends in extreme storms: State of knowledge. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 94, doi:10.1175/BAMS-D-11-00262.1. URL

  9. Matthews, H. D., and K. Zickfeld, 2012: Climate response to zeroed emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols. Nature Climate Change, 2, 338-341, doi:10.1038/nclimate1424. URL

  10. Peterson, T. C. et al., 2013: Monitoring and understanding changes in heat waves, cold waves, floods and droughts in the United States: State of knowledge. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 94, 821-834, doi:10.1175/BAMS-D-12-00066.1. URL

  11. Schnellnhuber, H. J., W. P. Cramer, N. Nakicenovic, T. Wigley, and G. Yohe, 2006: Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change. H.J. Schellnhuber, Ed. Cambridge University Press.

  12. Sillmann, J., V. V. Kharin, F. W. Zwiers, X. Zhang, and D. Bronaugh, 2013: Climate extremes indices in the CMIP5 multimodel ensemble: Part 2. Future climate projections. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 118, 2473-2493, doi:10.1002/jgrd.50188. URL

  13. Sun, Y., S. Solomon, A. Dai, and R. W. Portmann, 2007: How often will it rain? Journal of Climate, 20, 4801-4818, doi:10.1175/jcli4263.1. URL

  14. Taylor, K. E., R. J. Stouffer, and G. A. Meehl, 2012: An overview of CMIP5 and the experiment design. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 93, 485, doi:10.1175/BAMS-D-11-00094.1. URL

  15. Vose, R. S. et al., 2013: Monitoring and understanding changes in extremes: Extratropical storms, winds, and waves. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, in press, doi:10.1175/BAMS-D-12-00162.1. URL

  16. Wuebbles, D. J., G. Meehl, K. Hayhoe, T. R. Karl, K. Kunkel, B. Santer, M. Wehner, B. Colle, E. M. Fischer, R. Fu, A. Goodman, E. Janssen, H. Lee, W. Li, L. N. Long, S. Olsen, A. J. Sheffield, and L. Sun, 2013: CMIP5 climate model analyses: Climate extremes in the United States. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, in press, doi:10.1175/BAMS-D-12-00172.1. URL

The National Climate Assessment summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States, now and in the future.

A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.

United States Global Change Research Program logo United States Global Change Research Program participating agency logos