California Ready to Focus on Regional Climate Change

A temperature increase raises the snow-line and decreases the area where winter precipitation will be preserved until spring in the Sierra Nevada snowpack. Warming in this century will reduce the spring runoff substantially. Since the Sierra stores more water than the California water project, this will present a serious problem for water management and agriculture.

With increasing consensus among policymakers that global warming is more than a hypothesis, the time is right for California to take on a leading role in understanding how climate change could affect it and how best to cope with it, according to CCST Council member G. Scott Hubbard and CCST Fellow Charles Kennel.

The California Energy Commission has already begun forecasting how climate change will affect California. Some of these have potentially significant consequences. A storm surge off the Northern California coast combined with heavy rainfall could swamp the aging levee system in the Sacramento Delta, causing upheaval to the 6 million Californians who live nearby and threatening the water supply for much of Southern California. Early concerns like this have led to such responses as Governor Schwarzenegger’s actions on greenhouse gases. However, a lack of data makes it difficult to plan appropriate responses.Hubbard, the former director of NASA Ames Research Center and Chair of the SETI Institute, and Kennel, former director of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and former CCST Council member presented “A Regional Climate Change Concept” at the CCST council meeting in February. “We have already ‘bought’ climate change,” said Hubbard. “A change in public opinion is occurring, and we are going beyond asking whether global change is real, to develop solutions.”

“Without data, everyone is at risk of flying blind,” said Kennel. “The federal government needs to extend the life of such systems as the Earth Observing System [a network of satellites dedicated to gathering data on Earth’s climate]. Data collection needs to be sustained over time so we can understand the changes that are really taking place.” The aging network of spacecraft currently used to gather data needs to be rebuilt, according to the National Research Council, which recently urged funding 17 satellite missions by 2020 to shore up the system.

“We need to develop our own regional measurements of mountain snowpack, river flows, coastal ocean circulation, air pollution and circulation, earthquakes, soil moisture, fire hazard, fish populations and many other things,” said Hubbard. “It may be necessary for us to build and launch a ‘Cal-Satellite’ that could collect specific data to fill in the gaps from the NASA and NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration].”However while the national system faces challenges, Kennel and Hubbard asserted that regional climate studies are the next frontier of climate research. (Regional climate change is the theme of the CCST’s meeting in May 2007.)

Being able to connect global climate change tangibly to regional impacts is essential to driving appropriate state and local responses, according to Hubbard and Kennel.

“Talking about global temperature variations doesn’t have much meaning for the average citizen,” noted Kennel. “But talking about, for example, the effects on the California citrus crop due to such variations can be much more compelling.” Regional climate studies generally require smaller scale data than is currently available, however, using localized networks and assets that do not currently exist. In addition, effective regional impacts assessment requires coupling climate change data with economic and social information such as infrastructure costs and risks.

While the challenges are significant, California already has many of the tools it needs to develop an effective regional climate analysis system.

“The University of California, Stanford, Cal Tech, USC, and the state’s other world-class universities provide the breadth of expertise needed to understand the human as well as the environmental impacts of climate change,” said Hubbard. “And some California regional capabilities exist already.” These include the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System, the Southern California Earthquake Consortium, and the Central California Ocean Observing System.

“The building blocks are here; California could pave the way by designing the regional systems it needs,” added Kennel. “With the right commitment and organization bringing these diverse resources together, California could lead the world in regional climate change observation, analysis, prediction, and response.”

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