Study predicts imminent new normal of hotter climate

Scientists project when world’s cities will depart from historical variability, threatening ecosystems

A reef slope densely covered by soft corals in Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia. Lead scientist Camilo Mora says coral reef species are the first to be stuck in a new climate that they haven't experienced before and are most vulnerable to climate change.
Keoki Stender/AP Photo

Billions of people could be living in regions where temperatures are hotter than their historical ranges by mid-century, creating a new normal that would impose profound changes on nature and society, scientists said on Wednesday.

Temperatures in an typical location in an average year would be hotter by 2047, than those in the warmest year from 1860-2005 if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, with the tropics the first affected area, a new index indicated. Eventually, the coldest year in a particular city or region will be hotter than the hottest year in its past.

"The results shocked us. Regardless of the scenario, changes will be coming soon," lead author Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii said. "Within my generation whatever climate we were used to will be a thing of the past."

The data, published in the journal Nature, suggested the cities to be hit earliest included Manokwari in Indonesia, which could shift to a new climate from 2020. The earliest U.S. cities to hit that threshold would be Honolulu in 2043 and Orlando in 2046.

At the other extreme, Moscow and Dallas would depart from historical variability in 2063 and Anchorage not until 2071.

In all, the scientists found that between 1 and 5 billion people would be living in regions outside such limits of historical variability, underscoring the impact already under way from a build-up of man-made greenhouse gases.

"Unprecedented climates will occur earliest in the tropics and among low-income countries," according to the study, which urged cuts in greenhouse gases to limit damage to human society and wildlife.

Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Global Ecology said the study “demonstrates that we are pushing the ecosystems of the world out of their environment in which they evolved into wholly new conditions that they may not be able to cope with.”

“Extinctions are likely to result,” he added, specifically mentioning Earth’s rapidly dwindling coral reefs.

Commentators noted, however, that the study did not fully address how people may become better adapted at dealing with the warming, potentially buffering against some of its effects.

Provided by the authors of "The projected timing of climate departure from recent variability"

Skeptics who question the need for urgent action have been emboldened by the fact that temperatures rose more slowly over the past 15 years despite increasing greenhouse gas emissions, especially in emerging nations led by China.

Leading climate scientists countered last month that they were more convinced than ever that humans were the main culprits behind global warming, and predicted the impact from greenhouse gas emissions could linger for centuries.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the hiatus in warming was a natural variation that would not last, and the Earth was set for more floods, droughts and rising sea levels from melting ice sheets that could swamp low-lying islands.

Efforts to curb emissions could delay the average expected date for the shift to a new normal climate to 2069, according to the scientists behind the Nature study.

Other experts welcomed the study as a novel perspective on climate change — most past studies examine the climate at a fixed date such as 2050 or 2100 rather than predict the timing of a shift to a new state. 

"This shows the point at which what is now an extreme year becomes the norm," said Chris Huntingford of the Center for Ecology and Hydrology in England.

He said that the study did not fully examine the possibility that people and nature may be better at adapting to warming than expected. "It remains one of the big open questions," he said.

By way of example, a 2003 heatwave in Europe, the hottest in 500 years, killed up to 70,000 people, but many scientists say better preparations would reduce that toll.

The study examined temperatures back to 1860, for which reliable records are available. The U.N. panel of climate scientists said in its report that the period 1983-2012 was likely to have been the warmest in the past 1,400 years.


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