Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

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5.6. North America

North America will experience both positive and negative climate change impacts (high confidence). Varying impacts on ecosystems and human settlements will exacerbate subregional differences in climate-sensitive resource production and vulnerability to extreme events. Opportunities and challenges to adaptation will arise, frequently involving multiple stresses (Table TS-12). Some innovative adaptation strategies are being tested as a response to current climate-related challenges (e.g., water banks), but few cases have examined how these strategies could be implemented as regional climates continue to change. Shifting patterns in temperature, precipitation, disease vectors, and water availability will require adaptive responses—including, for example, investments in storm protection and water supply infrastructure, as well as community health services. [15.3.2, 15.4]

Table TS-12: Climate change adaptation issues in North American subregions. Some unique issues for certain locations also are indicated.
North American Subregions Development Context Climate Change Adaptation Options and Challenges
Most or all subregions - Changing commodity markets
- Intensive water resources development over large areas—domestic and transboundary
- Lengthy entitlement/land claim/treaty agreements—domestic and transboundary
- Urban expansion
- Transportation expansion
- Role of water/environmental markets
- Changing design and operations of water and energy systems
- New technology/practices in agriculture and forestry
- Protection of threatened ecosystems or
adaptation to new landscapes
- Increased role for summer (warm weather) tourism
- Risks to water quality from extreme events
- Managing community health for changing risk factors
- Changing roles of public emergency assistance and private insurance
Arctic border - Winter transport system
- Indigenous lifestyles
- Design for changing permafrost and ice
- Role of two economies and co-management bodies
Coastal regions - Declines in some commercial marine resources (cod, salmon)
- Intensive coastal zone development
- Aquaculture, habitat protection, fleet reductions
- Coastal zone planning in high demand areas
Great Lakes - Sensitivity to lake level fluctuations - Managing for reduction in mean levels without increased shoreline encroachment
5.6.1. Communities and Urban Infrastructure

Potential changes in the frequency, severity, and duration of extreme events are among the most important risks associated with climate change in North America. Potential impacts of climate change on cities include fewer periods of extreme winter cold; increased frequency of extreme heat; rising sea levels and risk of storm surge; and changes in timing, frequency, and severity of flooding associated with storms and precipitation extremes. These events—particularly increased heat waves and changes in extreme events—will be accompanied by effects on health.

Communities can reduce their vulnerability to adverse impacts through investments in adaptive infrastructure, which can be expensive. Rural, poor, and indigenous communities may not be able to make such investments. Furthermore, infrastructure investment decisions are based on a variety of needs beyond climate change, including population growth and aging of existing systems. [15.2.5]

5.6.2. Water Resources and Aquatic Ecosystems

Figure TS-8: Possible water resources impacts in North America.

Uncertain changes in precipitation lead to little agreement regarding changes in total annual runoff across North America. Modeled impacts of increased temperatures on lake evaporation lead to consistent projections of reduced lake levels and outflows for the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence system under most scenarios (medium confidence). Increased incidence of heavy precipitation events will result in greater sediment and non-point-source pollutant loadings to watercourses (medium confidence). In addition, in regions where seasonal snowmelt is an important aspect of the annual hydrologic regime (e.g., California, Columbia River Basin), warmer temperatures are likely to result in a seasonal shift in runoff, with a larger proportion of total runoff occurring in winter, together with possible reductions in summer flows (high confidence). This could adversely affect the availability and quality of water for instream and out-of-stream water uses during the summer (medium confidence). Figure TS-8 shows possible impacts. [15.2.1]

Adaptive responses to such seasonal runoff changes include altered management of artificial storage capacity, increased reliance on coordinated management of groundwater and surface water supplies, and voluntary water transfers between various water users. Such actions could reduce the impacts of reduced summer flows on water users, but it may be difficult or impossible to offset adverse impacts on many aquatic ecosystems, and it may not be possible to continue to provide current levels of reliability and quality for all water users. Some regions (e.g., the western United States) are likely to see increased market transfers of available water supplies from irrigated agriculture to urban and other relatively highly valued uses. Such reallocations raise social priority questions and entail adjustment costs that will depend on the institutions in place.

5.6.3. Marine Fisheries

Climate-related variations in marine/coastal environments are now recognized as playing an important role in determining the productivity of several North American fisheries in the Pacific, North Atlantic, Bering Sea, and Gulf of Mexico regions. There are complex links between climatic variations and changes in processes that influence the productivity and spatial distribution of marine fish populations (high confidence), as well as uncertainties linked to future commercial fishing patterns. Recent experience with Pacific salmon and Atlantic cod suggests that sustainable fisheries management will require timely and accurate scientific information on environmental conditions affecting fish stocks, as well as institutional and operational flexibility to respond quickly to such information. []

5.6.4. Agriculture

Small to moderate climate change will not imperil food and fiber production (high confidence). There will be strong regional production effects, with some areas suffering significant loss of comparative advantage to other regions (medium confidence). Overall, this results in a small net effect. The agricultural welfare of consumers and producers would increase with modest warming. However, the benefit would decline at an increasing rate—possibly becoming a net loss—with further warming. There is potential for increased drought in the U.S. Great Plains/Canadian Prairies and opportunities for a limited northward shift in production areas in Canada.

Increased production from direct physiological effects of CO2, and farm- and agricultural market-level adjustments (e.g., behavioral, economic, and institutional) are projected to offset losses. Economic studies that include farm- and agricultural market-level adjustments indicate that the negative effects of climate change on agriculture probably have been overestimated by studies that do not account for these adjustments (medium confidence). However, the ability of farmers to adapt their input and output choices is difficult to forecast and will depend on market and institutional signals. []

5.6.5. Forests and Protected Areas

Climate change is expected to increase the areal extent and productivity of forests over the next 50-100 years (medium confidence). However, climate change is likely to cause changes in the nature and extent of several "disturbance factors" (e.g., fire, insect outbreaks) (medium confidence). Extreme or long-term climate change scenarios indicate the possibility of widespread forest decline (low confidence).

There is strong evidence that climate change can lead to the loss of specific ecosystem types—such as high alpine areas and specific coastal (e.g., salt marshes) and inland (e.g., prairie "potholes") wetland types (high confidence). There is moderate potential for adaptation to prevent these losses by planning conservation programs to identify and protect particularly threatened ecosystems. Lands that are managed for timber production are likely to be less susceptible to climate change than unmanaged forests because of the potential for adaptive management. [15.2.2]

5.6.6. Human Health

Vector-borne diseases, including malaria and dengue fever, may expand their ranges in the United States and may develop in Canada. Tick-borne Lyme disease also may see its range expanded in Canada. However, socioeconomic factors such as public health measures will play a large role in determining the existence or extent of such infections. Diseases associated with water may increase with warming of air and water temperatures, combined with heavy runoff events from agricultural and urban surfaces. Increased frequency of convective storms could lead to more cases of thunderstorm-associated asthma. [15.2.4]

5.6.7. Public and Private Insurance Systems

Inflation-corrected catastrophe losses have increased eight-fold in North America over the past 3 decades (high confidence). The exposures and surpluses of private insurers (especially property insurers) and reinsurers have been growing, and weather-related profit losses and insolvencies have been observed. Insured losses in North America (59% of the global total) are increasing with affluence and as populations continue to move into vulnerable areas. Insurer vulnerability to these changes varies considerably by region.

Recent extreme events have led to several responses by insurers, including increased attention to building codes and disaster preparedness. Insurers' practices traditionally have been based primarily on historic climatic experience; only recently have they begun to use models to predict future climate-related losses, so the potential for surprise is real. Governments play a key role as insurers or providers of disaster relief, especially in cases in which the private sector deems risks to be uninsurable. [15.2.7]

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