Science, Tech & Environment

A new report from the US government shows how the impacts of climate change are already harming the US

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Credit: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

In this picture taken October 30, 2012, a man walks away from a building that has been surrounded by the storm surge of Superstorm Sandy in Bellport, New York.

Climate change is an unprecedented global problem. But the impacts are very local. They leave no one untouched.

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That’s the sobering message from the Obama Administration’s National Climate Assessment. Environment Editor Peter Thomson spent the day reading through the paper. And while scientific and political discussion around the subject gets pretty technical and abstract quickly (think PPM of carbon) this document is quite different.

Thomson says the paper has immediacy to it. “What I think would be remarkable about this report for a casual reader is that it’s a present tense document,” he says. “There are way less words like ’will’ and ‘might’ and a whole lot of ‘is’ and ‘are’ — references to things that are happening now. It’s really striking.”

Here are a handful of such phrases taken from the document:

“Heavy downpours are increasing nationally…”

“Rising temperatures are reducing ice volume and surface extent on land, lakes, and sea…”

“Climate change is increasing the risks...”

“Infrastructure is being damaged by sea level rise…”

Jerry Melilloa distinguished scientist at the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, is the lead author of the report. In a conference call with reporters around the globe, he put the change in context. “For decades we’ve been collecting the dots about climate change,” he says. “Now, we have connected those dots.”

The report breaks down some of the impacts by region.

In the northeast, it says communities are already being hit with heat waves, more extreme precipitation events and coastal flooding from sea level rise and storm surge. In 2012, this was exemplified by Superstorm Sandy.

In the southwest, it says drought and increased warming is already leading to wildfires and increased competition for water resources.

Thomson says other things in this year’s report really stuck out to him, among them the impact on our infrastructure.

The report says, “Flooding around rivers, lakes, and in cities following heavy downpours, prolonged rains, and rapid melting of snowpack is exceeding the limits of flood protection infrastructure.” And it’s not just rain. Extreme heat damages rail line, roads and airport runways.

“Remember,” Thomson says, “they’re speaking in the present tense. These things are not only disruptive, but will be extremely expensive to rebuild.

Something that has gotten far less attention, though, is the growing impact of climate change on nature’s infrastructure. That means forests, barrier beaches and wetlands. These play a really important role in protecting people and communities from fires, floods and big storms. And the report says climate change is overwhelming their ability to provide such protections.

This report is aimed at states, communities, and individuals. “I think it has the potential to really make an impact on how the country engages with this challenge,” Thomson says.

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