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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U.S. average temperature has risen and is expected to rise more – how much more depends primarily on the amount of heat-trapping gases emitted globally.

Explore past and future U.S. warming.

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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 3: Recent U.S. Temperature Trends

U.S. average temperature has increased by 1.3°F to 1.9°F since record keeping began in 1895; most of this increase has occurred since about 1970. The most recent decade was the nation’s warmest on record. Temperatures in the United States are expected to continue to rise. Because human-induced warming is superimposed on a naturally varying climate, the temperature rise has not been, and will not be, uniform or smooth across the country or over time.

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.9 The first workshop was held in July 2011, titled Monitoring Changes in Extreme Storm Statistics: State of Knowledge.10 The second was held in November 2011, titled Forum on Trends and Causes of Observed Changes in Heatwaves, Coldwaves, Floods, and Drought.11 The third was held in January 2012, titled Forum on Trends in Extreme Winds, Waves, and Extratropical Storms along the Coasts.12 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.9

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 for the long-term increase in temperature is based on analysis of daily maximum and minimum temperature observations from the U.S. Cooperative Observer Network (http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/coop/). With the increasing understanding of U.S. temperature measurements, a temperature increase has been observed, and temperature is projected to continue rising.1,2,3,4,5,6,7 Observations show that the last decade was the warmest in over a century. A number of climate model simulations were performed to assess past, and to forecast future, changes in climate; temperatures are generally projected to increase across the United States.

The section entitled “Quantifying U.S. Temperature Rise” explains the rational for using the range 1.3°F to 1.9°F in the key message.

All peer-reviewed studies to date satisfying the assessment process agree that the U.S. has warmed over the past century and in the past several decades. Climate model simulations consistently project future warming and bracket the range of plausible increases.

New information and remaining uncertainties

Since the 2009 National Climate Assessment,8 there have been substantial advances in our understanding of the U.S. temperature record (Appendix 3: Climate Science Appendix, Supplemental Message 7).1,2,3,4,5,6,7

A potential uncertainty is the sensitivity of temperature trends to adjustments that account for historical changes in station location, temperature instrumentation, observing practice, and siting conditions. However, quality analyses of these uncertainties have not found any major issues of concern affecting the conclusions made in the key message (Appendix 3: Climate Science, Supplemental Message 7). (for example, Williams et al. 20127).

While numerous studies (for example, Fall et al. 2011;2 Vose et al. 2012;6 Williams et al. 20127) verify the efficacy of the adjustments, the information base can be improved in the future through continued refinements to the adjustment approach. Model biases are subject to changes in physical effects on climate; for example, model biases can be affected by snow cover and hence are subject to change as a warming climate changes snow cover.

Assessment of confidence based on evidence

Given the evidence base and remaining uncertainties, confidence is very high in the key message. Because human-induced warming is superimposed on a naturally varying climate, the temperature rise has not been, and will not be, uniform or smooth across the country or over time.

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

Recent U.S. Temperature Trends

There have been substantial advances in our understanding of the U.S. temperature record since the 2009 assessment (see Appendix 3: Climate Science, Supplemental Message 7 for more information). These advances confirm that the U.S. annually averaged temperature has increased by 1.3°F to 1.9°F since 1895.8,1,2,3,4,5,6,7 However, this increase was not constant over time. In particular, temperatures generally rose until about 1940, declined slightly until about 1970, then increased rapidly thereafter. The year 2012 was the warmest on record for the contiguous United States. Over shorter time scales (one to two decades), natural variability can reduce the rate of warming or even create a temporary cooling (see Appendix 3: Climate Science, Supplemental Message 3). The cooling in mid-century that was especially prevalent over the eastern half of the U.S. may have stemmed partly from such natural variations and partly from human influences, in particular the cooling effects of sulfate particles from coal-burning power plants,13 before these sulfur emissions were regulated to address health and acid rain concerns.

Quantifying U.S. Temperature Rise

Quantifying long-term increases of temperature in the U.S. in a single number is challenging because the increase has not been constant over time. The increase can be quantified in a number of ways, but all of them show significant warming over the U.S. since the instrumental record began in 1895. For example, fitting a linear trend over the period 1895 to 2012 yields an increase in the range of 1.3 to 1.9°F. Another approach, comparing the average temperature during the first decade of record with the average during the last decade of record, yields a 1.9°F increase. A third approach, calculating the difference between the 1901-1960 average and the past decade average yields a change of 1.5°F. Thus, the temperature increase cited in this assessment is described as 1.3°F to 1.9°F since 1895. Notably, however, the rate of rise in temperature over the past 4 to 5 decades has been greater than the rate over earlier decades.

Since 1991, temperatures have averaged 1°F to 1.5°F higher than 1901-1960 over most of the United States, except for the Southeast, where the warming has been less than 1°F. On a seasonal basis, long-term warming has been greatest in winter and spring.

Figure 2.7: Observed U.S. Temperature Change

Observed U.S. Temperature Change

U.S. AverageAlaskaNorthwestSouthwestHawai'iGreat Plains NorthGreat Plains SouthMidwestNortheastSoutheast
Alaska Northwest Southwest Hawai'i Great Plains North Great Plains South Southeast Northeast Midwest
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U.S. Average

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Alaska

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Northwest

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Southwest

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Hawai'i

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Great Plains North

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Great Plains South

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Midwest

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Northeast

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Southeast

Figure 2.7: The colors on the map show temperature changes over the past 22 years (1991-2012) compared to the 1901-1960 average, and compared to the 1951-1980 average for Alaska and Hawai‘i. The bars on the graphs show the average temperature changes by decade for 1901-2012 (relative to the 1901-1960 average) for each region. The far right bar in each graph (2000s decade) includes 2011 and 2012. The period from 2001 to 2012 was warmer than any previous decade in every region. (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).

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Warming is ultimately projected for all parts of the nation during this century. In the next few decades, this warming will be roughly 2°F to 4°F in most areas. By the end of the century, U.S. warming is projected to correspond closely to the level of global emissions: roughly 3°F to 5°F under lower emissions scenarios (B1 or RCP 4.5) involving substantial reductions in emissions, and 5°F to 10°F for higher emissions scenarios (A2 or RCP 8.5) that assume continued increases in emissions; the largest temperature increases are projected for the upper Midwest and Alaska.

Figure 2.8: Projected Temperature Change

Projected Temperature Change

Lower Emissions (B1)Higher Emissions (A2)

Figure 2.8: Maps show projected change in average surface air temperature in the later part of this century (2071-2099) relative to the later part of the last century (1970-1999) under a scenario that assumes substantial reductions in heat trapping gases (B1) and a higher emissions scenario that assumes continued increases in global emissions (A2). (See Appendix 3: Climate Science, Supplemental Message 5 for a discussion of temperature changes under a wider range of future scenarios for various periods of this century). (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).

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Future human-induced warming depends on both past and future emissions of heat-trapping gases and changes in the amount of particle pollution. The amount of climate change (aside from natural variability) expected for the next two to three decades is a combination of the warming already built into the climate system by the past history of human emissions of heat-trapping gases, and the expected ongoing increases in emissions of those gases. However, the magnitude of temperature increases over the second half of this century, both in the U.S. and globally, will be primarily determined by the emissions produced now and over the next few decades, and there are substantial differences between higher, fossil-fuel intensive scenarios compared to scenarios in which emissions are reduced. The most recent model projections of climate change due to human activities expand the range of future scenarios considered (particularly at the lower end), but are entirely consistent with the older model results. This consistency increases our confidence in the projections.

Figure 2.9: Newer Simulations for Projected Temperature (CMIP5 models)

Newer Simulations for Projected Temperature (CMIP5 models)

Figure 2.9: The largest uncertainty in projecting climate change beyond the next few decades is the level of heat-trapping gas emissions. The most recent model projections (CMIP5) take into account a wider range of options with regard to human behavior, including a lower scenario than has been considered before (RCP 2.6). This scenario assumes rapid reductions in emissions – more than 70% cuts from current levels by 2050 and further large decreases by 2100 – and the corresponding smaller amount of warming. On the higher end, the scenarios include one that assumes continued increases in emissions (RCP 8.5) and the corresponding greater amount of warming. Also shown are temperature changes for the intermediate scenarios RCP 4.5 (which is most similar to B1) and RCP 6.0 (which is most similar to A1B; see Appendix 3: Climate Science Supplement). Projections show change in average temperature in the later part of this century (2071-2099) relative to the late part of last century (1970-1999). (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).

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References

  1. Fall, S., D. Niyogi, A. Gluhovsky, R. A. Pielke, Sr., E. Kalnay, and G. Rochon, 2010: Impacts of land use land cover on temperature trends over the continental United States: Assessment using the North American Regional Reanalysis. International Journal of Climatology, 30, 1980-1993, doi:10.1002/joc.1996. URL

  2. Fall, S., A. Watts, J. Nielsen-Gammon, E. Jones, D. Niyogi, J. R. Christy, and R. A. Pielke, Sr., 2011: Analysis of the impacts of station exposure on the US Historical Climatology Network temperatures and temperature trends. Journal of Geophysical Research, 116, D14120, doi:10.1029/2010JD015146.

  3. 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

  4. 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

  5. Leibensperger, E. M., L. J. Mickley, D. J. Jacob, W. T. Chen, J. H. Seinfeld, A. Nenes, P. J. Adams, D. G. Streets, N. Kumar, and D. Rind, 2012: Climatic effects of 1950-2050 changes in US anthropogenic aerosols - Part 1: Aerosol trends and radiative forcing. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 12, 3333-3348, doi:10.5194/acp-12-3333-2012. URL

  6. Menne, M. J., and C. N. Williams, Jr., 2009: Homogenization of temperature series via pairwise comparisons. Journal of Climate, 22, 1700-1717, doi:10.1175/2008JCLI2263.1. URL

  7. Menne, M. J., C. N. Williams, Jr., and R. S. Vose, 2009: The US Historical Climatology Network monthly temperature data, version 2. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 90, 993-1007, doi:10.1175/2008BAMS2613.1. URL

  8. Menne, M. J., C. N. Williams, Jr., and M. A. Palecki, 2010: On the reliability of the U.S. surface temperature record. Journal of Geophysical Research, 115, 9, doi:10.1029/2009JD013094. URL

  9. 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

  10. Vose, R. S., S. Applequist, M. J. Menne, C. N. Williams, Jr., and P. Thorne, 2012: An intercomparison of temperature trends in the US Historical Climatology Network and recent atmospheric reanalyses. Geophysical Research Letters, 39, 6, doi:10.1029/2012GL051387. URL

  11. 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

  12. Williams, C. N., M. J. Menne, and P. W. Thorne, 2012: Benchmarking the performance of pairwise homogenization of surface temperatures in the United States. Journal of Geophysical Research, 117, 16, doi:10.1029/2011JD016761.

  13. 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