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12AD.10.2 Indicators of Change

Climate change infographic from the 4th National Climate Assessment
Kolian, Michael

Indicators of Change, 4th National Climate Assessment, 2018, U.S. Global Change Research Program, (a) adapted from Vose et al. 2017, (b) EPA, (c–f and h–l) adapted from EPA 2016, (g and center infographic) EPA and NOAA. (accessed 15 January 2020)

This infographic from a report created by the federal government explains some of the consequences of climate change. These changes result from increasing global temperatures. Scientists from agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explain: “Many independent lines of evidence demonstrate that the world is warming and that human activity is the primary cause.” Scientists predict that we are on track to see a global rise in temperatures from 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century. These warming temperatures are already causing (and will continue to cause) (1) more severe weather, including more frequent and intense droughts and storms; (2) an increase in wildfires; (3) melting ice, which contributes to sea level rise; and (4) ocean acidification, which threatens marine life and ecosystems. All together, these changes will have increasing social, political, and economic impacts as fresh water scarcity, less productive agricultural lands, diminished fishing catches, and destructive storms and fires disrupt communities around the world.

The US Constitution was written long before climate change began. Over the centuries, US courts have interpreted the Constitution in light of new realities and developments. How might rising temperatures, and the environmental changes associated with rising temperatures, have the potential to cause harm to life, freedom, and property? How might people’s daily lives change, and how might their ability to move or the property they own be affected? You might think about it as a movie playing out before you: What will the world look like from an individual’s viewpoint?

If students are unfamiliar with the various threats posed by the warming temperatures associated with climate change, classroom-ready resources on sea level rise, altered agricultural production, freshwater scarcity, wildfires, and international agreements on climate change can be found on the CHSSP website. These resources can provide helpful context for understanding climate change and scientists’ predictions of threats to life and property.

When the students are ready to begin discussing effects on life, liberty, and property, you might start with the effect on property. It is, perhaps, easier to see how sea level rise will affect coastal property, or how increased fires will actually affect use of property.

Figure 1.2: Long-term observations demonstrate the warming trend in the climate system and the effects of increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. This figure shows climate-relevant indicators of change based on data collected across the United States. Upward-pointing arrows indicate an increasing trend; downward-pointing arrows indicate a decreasing trend. Bidirectional arrows (e.g., for drought conditions) indicate a lack of a definitive national trend.
Atmosphere (a–c): (a) Annual average temperatures have increased by 1.8°F across the contiguous United States since the beginning of the 20th century; this figure shows observed change for 1986–2016 (relative to 1901–1960 for the contiguous United States and 1925–1960 for Alaska, Hawai‘i, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands). Alaska is warming faster than any other state and has warmed twice as fast as the global average since the mid-20th century. (b) The season length of heat waves in many U.S. cities has increased by over 40 days since the 1960s. Hatched bars indicate partially complete decadal data. (c) The relative amount of annual rainfall that comes from large, single-day precipitation events has changed over the past century; since 1910, a larger percentage of land area in the contiguous United States receives precipitation in the form of these intense single-day events.
Ice, snow, and water (d–f): (d) Large declines in snowpack in the western United States occurred from 1955 to 2016. (e) While there are a number of ways to measure drought, there is currently no detectable change in long-term U.S. drought statistics using the Palmer Drought Severity Index. (f) Since the early 1980s, the annual minimum sea ice extent (observed in September each year) in the Arctic Ocean has decreased at a rate of 11%–16% per decade.
Oceans and coasts (g–i): (g) Annual median sea level along the U.S. coast (with land motion removed) has increased by about 9 inches since the early 20th century as oceans have warmed and land ice has melted. (h) Fish, shellfish, and other marine species along the Northeast coast and in the eastern Bering Sea have, on average, moved northward and to greater depths toward cooler waters since the early 1980s (records start in 1982). (i) Oceans are also currently absorbing more than a quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere annually by human activities, increasing their acidity (measured by lower pH values.
Land and ecosystems (j–l): (j) The average length of the growing season has increased across the contiguous United States since the early 20th century, meaning that, on average, the last spring frost occurs earlier and the first fall frost arrives later; this map shows changes in growing season length at the state level from 1895 to 2016. (k) Warmer and drier conditions have contributed to an increase in large forest fires in the western United States and Interior Alaska over the past several decades. (l) Degree days are defined as the number of degrees by which the average daily temperature is higher than 65°F (cooling degree days) or lower than 65°F (heating degree days) and are used as a proxy for energy demands for cooling or heating buildings. Changes in temperatures indicate that heating needs have decreased and cooling needs have increased in the contiguous United States over the past century.