California Climate Researchers Sound the Alarm at Symposium: ‘There’s No Way Out’

By: Sandy Mazza
Published: 8-25-2015
Daily Breeze

A warming atmosphere has already worsened California’s drought and harmed coastal ecosystems, but the worst is yet to come, according to the latest scientific research presented this week on the interactions of air pollution, water reserves and weather patterns.

State environmental and natural resources regulators joined with Gov. Jerry Brown’s Office of Planning and Research to present the latest statewide academic findings at the California Climate Change Symposium in Sacramento on Monday and Tuesday.

But researchers were less interested in sharing their data than in provoking political action — something they said they have failed to do because of poor communication with the general public.

“What we’re beginning to understand is that there’s no way out,” said Susanne Moser, a leading Santa Cruz-based climate change researcher. “We need transformational change. We don’t need more studies as much as we need to communicate the urgency and make solid changes. We need to not debate forever.

“It’s hot and it’s getting hotter. It’s not looking good. It’s not going to get a lot easier. We’re just beginning to understand the most catastrophic situations, and we’re starting to sound like TV evangelists in what we’re trying to say.”

Coastal areas and forests are of particular concern now because both face grave threats to their ecosystems, as dense forests and warmer temperatures collude to create bigger fires — which are large contributors to carbon emissions, and scientists warn of coastal flooding and mass fish and water-bird extinctions.

Without action, researchers said, Californians will see greater droughts, floods, more intense storms, increasingly severe wildfires and permanent forest loss, and continually depleted groundwater reserves necessary for future drinking water supplies, among other major environmental shifts. This dire future picture comes at a time when the state is poised to accept another 11.5 million residents in the next 30 years, bringing the population to 50 million and taxing public services.

Local funding for environmental initiatives is slim and competition for the dollars fierce. Low-income communities receive disproportionately less money and are therefore less prepared than their more affluent counterparts, scientists say.

What’s more, management of water reserves across Los Angeles County is complicated, convoluted and beset by private interests — a challenging landscape for working regionally to pool resources.

“We’re getting over the illusion that we can (fix) this with just a few little changes,” Moser said during Tuesday’s keynote presentation. “We have to break old habits.”

Good solutions will require more public buy-in, and greater interagency planning and cooperation across wide geographic areas.

Scientists at the conference presented new evidence that there is a 95 percent chance that global warming greatly increased the likelihood of the high-pressure ridge that stubbornly blocked precipitation from reaching landfall in California, largely causing the drought conditions that have persisted for four years.

“High temperatures plus low precipitation are more likely to produce a drought, and this will increase with climate change,” said Noah Diffenbaugh, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment. “Global warming has at least tripled the probability of the atmospheric condition that brought the resilient high-pressure ridge” that largely caused the drought.

An analysis of climate-change influence on the drought published in Geophysical Research Letters on Thursday found that climate change worsened California’s dry season by up to 20 percent. The study thoroughly analyzed multiple levels of atmospheric moisture.

Though big storms are expected this winter, Californians should actually anticipate worsening droughts, scientists said.

It will likely be a wet winter due to a 90 percent probability of a coming El Niño, a pattern of warm western Pacific water that drives down cold upwellings caused by shifting trade winds. It is expected to bring large rainstorms and, according to researchers, dangerous floods through 2016.

“We’re in the middle of a drought but we’re going to be in the middle of a flood, and we’re less prepared for that,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland. “This is an extreme El Niño year but we don’t know how it will affect the drought. It’s going to be a big, big El Niño.”

Coastal communities are particularly vulnerable to flooding from sea-level rise as well, and NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management has an interactive online map that shows how it will impact vulnerable areas in detail. Regional efforts to raise buildings on the waterline and protect streets and other infrastructure are being implemented in some areas, including the Port of Los Angeles. Low-lying areas, including the Los Angeles International Airport, are at risk of being submerged in water.

Geographic impacts of climate change on a local level are mapped in real-time on an online Story Map developed by Stanford researchers that details wildfires, suspended agricultural production and other weather-related effects.

Wildfires are of particular concern because conifer forests are thicker than ever and a drier, hotter climate is especially conducive to fire. But extreme storms also are expected to increase because “a warmer atmosphere holds more water,” said Michael Dettinger, a research hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Heavy concentrations of atmospheric rivers — thick precipitation that travels in a streamlike formation — will increase with a warming climate, he said.

“The way we will get wetter is by having our large storms get larger,” Dettinger said.

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