Is Your City Planning Ahead?

Flooding along San Francisco's Embarcadero during an extreme high tide in February, 2011.

With little being done at the national and international level to cut carbon emissions and curb the march of climate change, more and more communities and institutions are seriously considering how they will adapt to the environmental changes that lie ahead. 

Sea levels are rising, and in the Bay Area, planners are expecting an increase of nearly five feet by the end of the century.  According to climate models, temperatures across the state are likely to rise between three and seven degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, leading to increased heat waves and stressing the state’s water supply.

So, are we prepared?  Not really, according to a story today on the public radio program Marketplace.

And yet, as reporter Sarah Gardner explains, there are communities, including some in California, that are taking action now, and investing real money, to protect themselves (and their real estate) from the changes ahead, despite current fiscal challenges.

Climate Study Predicts Deadly Heat for Older Californians

California’s heat waves are going to be getting longer and hotter in the coming decades, according to a new climate modeling study commissioned by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the EPA. The authors predict that heat-related deaths among California’s 65-and-over population could spike more than nine-fold by 2090. According to the study, currently more than 500 elderly people die annually from heat-related causes.

Using IPCC climate projections, the study models how climate change will impact California up and down the coast, including coastal cities like San Francisco and inland cities such as Riverside and Fresno.

Lead author Scott Sheridan, a geographer at Kent State University, says that the projected increase in heat-related deaths among those 65 and over are due in part to physiological reasons, but also to growing population size of this age group. By the end of the century, he says, the state’s population of people in this age bracket will increase from 4 million to 15.7 million. Sheridan says California communities that are already used to dealing with hotter temperatures, like the inland city of Fresno, may be better prepared to deal with the heat than relatively cooler coastal cities. Continue reading

Climate Change Offers Up a New Wine List

Climate change could dramatically affect the microclimates that have made California wine country so successful. (Photo: Lauren Sommer)

You’ve probably heard of the wines that made Napa and Sonoma famous, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. But what about Negroamaro or Nero d’Avola?

They’re wine grapes that are well-adapted to hotter climates – the kind of conditions that California may be facing as the climate continues to warm. But for wineries that have staked their reputations on certain wines, adapting to climate change could be a tough sell.

Talk to any wine lover in California and they’ll tell you how lucky they are to live in such rich wine-producing region. Take the recent meeting of the San Francisco Wine Lovers Group at Toast wine bar in Oakland, where the favorites are California Pinot Noir, Russian River Zinfandel, and Napa Cabernet.

In fact, the type of grape – or varietal – is how most of us think about wine. Continue reading

California Cities Confront Water Challenges

Scientists and planners expect the Bay Area to face a host of water-related threats in the coming decades due to climate change, including flooding due to rising seas and summer water shortages due to warmer temperatures and a shrinking Sierra snowpack.

A new analysis released Tuesday from the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council catalogs these threats, for San Francisco, and for 11 other American cities, including Los Angeles. The study also looks at how prepared the cities are to adapt to these climate challenges. It finds, in general, that San Francisco is leading the way when it comes to being prepared. Continue reading

Visualizing California Climate Change

An engrossing one-stop shop for California’s climate future goes online

If you’re like me, and you spend a good part of every day thinking about climate change and California, you may have already lost yourself in the treasure trove of climate data and mapping fun that is Cal-Adapt, a comprehensive series of online tools just released by  the California Natural Resources Agency and the California Energy Commission.

And if you’re not like me, it’s still worth checking out.

Built by UC Berkeley’s Geospatial Innovation Facility, Cal-Adapt is designed to aid local and regional planners in preparing to adapt to climate change by providing scientific data from institutions like Scripps Institute of Oceanography, U.S. Geological Survey, UC Merced, and the Pacific Institute, and integrating it with mapping and charting capabilities from Google. The result is an attractive, interactive experience that enables you to view potential future climate-related scenarios for any location in California, and to sort by topics such as sea level rise, wildfire, and snowpack.  Importantly, data sources are prominently displayed. Continue reading

Report: Climate Change Hits Home

Flooding along San Francisco's Embarcadero during an extreme high tide in February. (Photo: Heidi Nutters/Flickr)

Even if the world stopped emitting all greenhouse gases today, scientists say, the climate would continue to change, perhaps for centuries, before it stabilized.  Since a zero-emissions world is unlikely, to say the least, and considering that global carbon emissions are continuing on their upward trend, finding ways to adapt to what many see as inevitable is getting more and more attention.

The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), a local think tank focused on sustainable growth, has just released a 40-page report that outlines the Bay Area’s biggest climate risks and lays out a road map for how communities can start preparing.

The upshot?  We’ve got a lot of work to do.
Continue reading

Australia’s Climate Chief Comes to CA, Urges Action

Melting snow and ice near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge last June (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Australia’s Chief Climate Commissioner, Tim Flannery, stopped by KQED this morning for an appearance on Forum, the station’s live call-in program.  He spoke about the status of international climate agreements and expressed hope for the process, which is not something I came across very often as a reporter at the UN climate talks in Cancun last December.

“We’re slowly gaining the ability to cooperate globally,” he told KQED’s Michael Krasny. “It’s a race against time, and whether we win or not is an open question.”
Continue reading

Report: Cities Fiddle While World Warms

A hillside near Mexico City (Photo: Carlye Calvin, UCAR)

Compared to most of the world, California would appear to have a head start in planning for a changing climate.

Cities across the world are not doing enough to protect citizens from the likely impacts. That’s the finding of a new analysis from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, CO. The report says cities are unprepared for rising seas, intensified heat waves, while failing to curb their own greenhouse gas emissions. Continue reading

Mapping California’s Shifting Climate

By Gretchen Weber & Molly Samuel

A companion radio piece to this post aired on The California Report.

Map from The Nature Conservancy showing projected drought conditions for 2070-2100

Projected drought conditions for 2070-2100 (Map: The Nature Conservancy)

Climate change is causing conservationists to rethink traditional methods of protecting lands and ecosystems. The conventional strategy of setting aside a specific parcel of land (and increasingly, ocean) to protect a particular community of organisms may no longer be sufficient in a rapidly changing climate. While greenhouse gas reduction and climate change mitigation remains a top priority for most conservationists, land managers have begun developing adaptation strategies that take the effects of a warming planet into account.

“We have a fantastic conservation success story in having conserved a huge network of protected areas,” says Healy Hamilton, director of the Center for Applied Biodiversity Informatics at the California Academy of Sciences. “The issue with those protected areas is that they all have static boundaries around them and they work to protect what lies within them,  So the plants and animals that are there are well-protected, as long as they stay there.” Trouble is, the habitat isn’t staying put.

Climate has “Velocity”

The world’s ecosystems will need to move about a quarter of a mile each year to keep up with climate change, according to a recent study published in Nature (link is to the first paragraph of the paper; the full article is only available to subscribers, but you can read a press release about the about the study).

Researchers from the Carnegie Institution, Stanford, the California Academy of Sciences, and UC Berkeley collaborated on the paper, which describes climate belts sweeping north and south from the equator–and also moving uphill–as the world warms.

Hamilton, who co-authored the study, told a packed house at the Center for Biological Diversity in January, that “Climates are on the move. It’s not just a slow unfolding, it’s a radical, abnormal process. Everywhere we look, shifts are already occurring.”

And under these changing conditions, she said, plants and animals have three choices: “They can stay and adapt, they can shift with their climate, or they can go locally extinct if they can’t move fast enough.”

The study’s lead author, Scott Loarie, a fellow at the Carnegie Institution, explains that climate change forecasts are commonly measured in degrees per year, but the authors of this study wanted to know how those temperature changes would affect what can live where. So they used temperature “velocity” (in kilometers per year) to measure how fast regional climate conditions are moving as the planet heats up.

It turns out that the belts move at different rates, depending on the landscape. In the Amazon Basin, velocity is relatively high. It’s a large and homogeneous ecosystem, so as the temperature changes there, plants and animals will have to travel a long way to keep up with the climate in which they’ve evolved to thrive. In a place like California, with its microclimates and variable topography, the velocity is lower. Some species may need merely to migrate to a nearby north-facing–and therefore cooler–slope. Others will have to head north and toward the coast. Climate models forecast that eventually the Bay Area will look more like Southern California, and the Bay Area’s current climate will be located somewhere north of us.

Projected Heat Stress in California for 2070-2100 (Map: The Nature Conservancy)

Projected Heat Stress in California for 2070-2100 (Map: The Nature Conservancy)

Mapping a Moving Climate

The Nature Conservancy of California has attempted to map some of these trends (see above and below). Scientists averaged together several different climate models to create a picture of California’s future in terms of temperature and precipitation. They then applied that projection to habitats for specific species, to make predictions about how ranges may shift. The maps show both how much areas are likely to change, as well as how certain the predictions are.

“What we’re trying to understand is how does the way we protect species in the future need to change with a changing climate,” says Rebecca Shaw, Director of Conservation for the Nature Conservancy of California. “The kind of strategies you employ and how much you spend is really going to be dependent on how certain you are about change in the future.”

For example, she says some parts of the Sierra are not likely to change very much over the next century, but some places like the Mojave Desert are expected to change a great deal. That kind of information could be useful for land managers trying to plan for the future. For example, in areas that are expected to undergo great change, it might be more important to preserve corridors, or connecting stretches of protected lands, so that populations can move as the climate changes, if they are unable to adapt where they are.

Loarie says “assisted migration”–helping specific species move to new locations–is expensive, unpredictable, and unrealistic. Instead, he, too, corridors for plants and animals to safely follow their climate–if they can keep up. Species like the American pika, already living on mountaintops, can’t go any farther uphill. Their habitats could disappear completely, or, as Loarie says, “they’ll pop off the top.”

There are limitations to the predictions one can make with temperature velocity measurements. What temperature changes will do to fog, for instance, is still unknown, so it’s not clear yet where the redwoods will need to move in the next 100 or so years.

To enable the second option, Hamilton agrees with Loarie. she says the conservation community needs to rethink its traditional strategy of protecting lands. Instead of protecting specific parcels of land and expecting them the stay the same over time, conservationists need to expect change, and to create connectivity in the landscape so that species can move when and if they need to.

Projected changes in California Salamander habitat (Map: The Nature Conservancy)

Projected changes in California Salamander habitat (Map: The Nature Conservancy)

Projected changes in California Blue Oak habitat (Map: The Nature Conservancy)

Projected changes in California Blue Oak habitat (Map: The Nature Conservancy)

Schwarzenegger to Rally Subnationals

Meanwhile Rob Schmitz, our reporter in Copenhagen, sets the scene with a look at how the state’s anchor climate legislation is playing here at home, three years after its passage. That report airs Monday morning on The California Report.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to arrive in Copenhagen on Monday, ready to rally the world’s “subnationals” in the fight against global warming. This is the first time that UN climate talks have created a formal role for states, provinces, cities and the like, and California’s governor will be loaded for bear.

In the weeks leading up to Copenhagen, the Governor turned up the heat on climate rhetoric, with a series of related media events. On Treasure Island, a low-lying man-made rectangle on San Francisco Bay that he said “could be under water” by the end of the century, Schwarzenegger unveiled the state’s climate adaptation strategy with a video tour of California’s climate vulnerabilities, powered by graphics from Google Earth (if you just want the gist, there’s a shorter version available).

The Governor also seized the occasion to preview his trip to Copenhagen, saying we “can’t wait” for national and multi-national efforts to save us from the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change; that “subnational” actors like California–perhaps led by California–should stay focused on their own efforts to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the changes already on the way. The Governor’s speech to COP 15 delegates on Tuesday will be a chance to do some crowing about California’s climate leadership, on an international stage, before a media gallery that’s been estimated at somewhere between 3,500 and 5,000 members.