Climate change in America: What the U.S. stands to lose

10 12 2009

When it comes to global warming, it’s a common belief that the industrialized countries in the north have created the problem and the developing countries in the south have to suffer the consequences. But that doesn’t mean the industrialized world would escape impact.

If current trends continue, coastal cities on the eastern seaboard face increasing risk of sea level rising and flooding. Inland areas such as the southwest face drought. And breadbasket states face heat waves and heavier rains that can destroy crops. The consequences offer a grim future if global temperature escalate the critical 2-3 degrees Celsius that scientists predict.

Heat waves and human health – A warmer climate means heat waves will occur more often and they will last longer. Under the business-as-usual scenario, Chicago will see 25 percent more heat waves per year and, in Los Angeles, the number of heat wave days each year is expected to surge from 12 to 44 (best-case scenario) or 95 (worst-case scenario). The elderly are always the most at risk, and with the Baby Boomers rapidly joining their ranks, the vulnerable population is rising. Meanwhile increased ozone in the air could damage lung tissue and pose a threat to people with asthma. And the tick that carries Lyme disease – vulnerable to colder temperatures – will see lots of new real estate with a territory expanding 125 miles north by the 2020s and about 600 miles by the 2080s.

Shrinking the Great Lakes? – Groundwater levels that replenish well water supplies are expected to drop, especially in the Southwest, where water is already a precious commodity. Agriculture will suffer as governments allocate more water for cities and industries to use. The fate of the Great Lakes remains uncertain. Less runoff should cut off their supply. Some models suggest they could fall more than 4 feet, although one model has levels rising 1 foot. Drying up the Great Lakes would be felt all across the board as channels become impassable, docks and harbors become inaccessible, species lose their habitats and hydropower and industry lose one of their key resources. Almost half the water supply to southern California could be threatened as runoff from the Sierra Nevada and Colorado River basin decreases.

Floods and droughts – The already-dry Southwest is expected to get even drier, but rainfall will increase everywhere else. The bigger change, though, is in precipitation extremes – how many floods and droughts the nation will face in the coming decades. And the figures suggest they’re going to get more frequent and more intense. Floods that now occur every 100 years could occur every three to four years, and floods that occur every 500 years could occur every 50. Iowa experienced two such severe floods within a few years, in 1993 and 2008.

The high cost of plant growth – Climate change will lengthen the growing season – and forest cover – which should be a good thing, as forests act as carbon sinks sucking up CO2 from the atmosphere. But the warmer months and flourishing vegetation also increase the risk of forest fires. Estimates predict the fire-risk window will widen 10 to 30 percent during the warmer summer months. One of the key beneficiaries – agriculture – will have a hard time taking advantage of the longer growing season as water supplies dwindle and get shifted to the cities. And the migration of forests upward and northward will also drastically alter ecosystems. Scientists predict by 2050, 15 to 37 percent of the global plant and animal species will be on the path to extinction.

If it acts quickly, the U.S. has the technological know-how to prevent these problems by developing energy efficiency and clean energy sources. The ideas and innovations are out there, but before demand will take off, the nation as a whole must realize its stake in the game and garner the willpower to link its future to the rest of the world.

Source: The International Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report (2007)

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