REPORTS - SPECIAL REPORTS

The Regional Impacts of Climate Change


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Executive Summary

Within the North American region (defined for the purposes of this report as the portion of continental North America south of the Arctic Circle and north of the U.S.-Mexico border), vulnerability to climate change varies significantly from sector to sector and from subregion to subregion. Recognition of this variability or subregional "texture" is important in understanding the potential effects of climate change on North America and in formulating viable response strategies.

The characteristics of the subregions and sectors of North America suggest that neither the impacts of climate change nor the response options will be uniform. This assessment suggests that there will be differences in the impacts of climate change across the region and within particular sectors. In fact, simply considering the relative climate sensitivity of different sectors or systems within a particular subregion (i.e., climate-sensitive, climate-insensitive, or climate-limited) would suggest differentiated impacts. This diversity also is reflected in the available response options. Sectors and subregions will need to adopt response options to alleviate negative impacts or take advantage of opportunities that not only address the impacts but are tailored to the needs and characteristics of that subregion.

Comprising most of Canada and the contiguous United States, this large area is diverse in terms of its geological, ecological, climatic, and socioeconomic structures. Temperature extremes range from well below -40C in northern latitudes during the winter months to greater than +40C in southern latitudes during the summer. The regional atmospheric circulation is governed mainly by upper-level westerly winds and subtropical weather systems, with tropical storms occasionally impacting on the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coasts during summer and autumn. The Great Plains (including the Canadian Prairies) and southeastern U.S. experience more severe weather-in the form of thunderstorms, tornadoes, and hail-than any other region of the world.

Our current understanding of the potential impacts of climate change is limited by critical uncertainties. One important uncertainty relates to the inadequacy of regional-scale climate projections relative to the spatial scales of variability in North American natural and human systems. This uncertainty is compounded further by the uncertainties inherent in ecological, economic, and social models-which thereby further limit our ability to identify the full extent of impacts or prescriptive adaptation measures. Given these uncertainties, particularly the inability to forecast futures, conclusions about regional impacts are not yet reliable and are limited to the sensitivity and vulnerability of physical, biological, and socioeconomic systems to climate change and climate variability.

Within most natural and human systems in North America, current climate-including its variability-frequently is a limiting factor. Climate, however, is only one of many factors that determine the overall condition of these systems. For example, projected population changes in North America and associated changes in land use and air and water quality will continue to put pressure on natural ecosystems (e.g., rangelands, wetlands, and coastal ecosystems). Projected changes in climate should be seen as an additional factor that can influence the health and existence of these ecosystems. In some cases, changes in climate will provide adaptive opportunities or could alleviate the pressure of multiple stresses; in other cases, climate change could hasten or broaden negative impacts, leading to reduced function or elimination of ecosystems.

Virtually all sectors within North America are vulnerable to climate change to some degree in some subregions. Although many sectors and regions are sensitive to climate change, the technological capability to adapt to climate change is readily available, for the most part. If appropriate adaptation strategies are identified and implemented in a timely fashion, the overall vulnerability of the region may be reduced. However, uncertainties exist about the feasibility of implementation and efficacy of technological adaptation.

Even when current adaptive capability has been factored in, long-lived natural forest ecosystems in the east and interior west; water resources in the southern plains; agriculture in the southeast and southern plains; human health in areas currently experiencing diminished urban air quality; northern ecosystems and habitats; estuarine beaches in developed areas; and low-latitude cold-water fisheries will remain among the most vulnerable sectors and regions. West coast coniferous forests; some western rangelands; energy costs for heating in the northern latitudes; salting and snow clearance costs; open-water season in northern channels and ports; and agriculture in the northern latitudes, the interior west, and west coast may benefit from opportunities associated with warmer temperatures or potentially from carbon dioxide (CO2) fertilization.

The availability of better information on the potential impacts of climate change and the interaction of these impacts with other important factors that influence the health and productivity of natural and human systems is critical to providing the lead time necessary to take full advantage of opportunities for minimizing or adapting to impacts, as well as for allowing adequate opportunity for the development of the necessary institutional and financial capacity to manage change.

Key Impacts to Physical, Biological, and Socioeconomic Systems

Ecosystems: Nonforest Terrestrial (Section 8.3.1).
The composition and geographic distribution of many ecosystems will shift as individual species respond to changes in climate. There will likely be reductions in biological diversity and in the goods and services that nonforest terrestrial ecosystems provide to society.

Increased temperatures could reduce sub-arctic (i.e., tundra and taiga/tundra) ecosystems. Loss of migratory wildfowl and mammal breeding and forage habitats may occur within the taiga/tundra, which is projected to nearly disappear from mainland areas. This ecozone currently is the home of the majority of the Inuit population. It also provides the major breeding and nesting grounds for a variety of migratory birds and the major summer range and calving grounds for Canada's largest caribou herd, as well as habitat for a number of ecologically significant plant and animal species critical to the subsistence lifestyles of the indigenous peoples. Current biogeographic model projections suggest that tundra and taiga/tundra ecosystems may be reduced by as much as two-thirds of their present size, reducing the regional storage of carbon in the higher latitudes of North America-which may shift the tundra region from a net sink to a net source of CO2 for the tundra region.

The relatively certain northward shift of the southern boundary of permafrost areas (projected to be about 500 km by the middle of the 21st century) will impact ecosystems, infrastructure, and wildlife in the altered areas through terrain slumping, increased sediment loadings to rivers and lakes, and dramatically altered hydrology; affected peatlands could become sources rather than sinks for atmospheric carbon. Projections suggest that peatlands may disappear from south of 60N in the Mackenzie Basin; patchy arctic wetlands currently supported by surface flow also may not persist.

Elevated CO2 concentrations may alter the nitrogen cycle, drought survival mechanisms (e.g., the rate of depletion of soil water by grasses), and fire frequency-potentially decreasing forage quality and impacting forage production on rangelands. Increases in CO2 and changes in regional climate could exacerbate the existing problem of loss of production on western rangelands related to woody and noxious plant invasions by accelerating the invasion of woody C3 plants (many crop and tree species) into mostly C4 (tropical grasses, many weed species ) grasslands. Mechanisms include changes in water-use efficiency (WUE), the nitrogen cycle (increase in carbon-to-nitrogen ratio and concentrations of unpalatable and toxic substances), drought survival mechanisms, and fire frequency. Growth and reproduction of individual animals could decrease as CO2 concentrations rise, without dietary supplementation. However, the data are ambiguous, and production may increase in some grassland ecosystems. Uncertainty exists in our ability to predict ecosystem or individual species responses to elevated CO2 and global warming at either the regional or global scale.

Arid lands may increase. Current biogeographical model simulations indicate up to a 200% increase in leaf area index in the desert southWest region of North America and a northern migration and expansion of arid-land species into the Great Basin region of North America. Although uncertainty exists in predictions of regional climate changes and simulations of ecosystem responses to elevated CO2 and global warming, long-term change in ecosystem structure and function is suggested.

Landslides and debris flows in unstable Rocky Mountain areas and possibly elsewhere could become more common as winter wet precipitation increases, permafrost degrades, and/or glaciers retreat. Water quality would be affected by increased sediment loads. Fish and wildlife habitat, as well as roads and other artificial structures, could be at increased risk.

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