Planet

New Climate Change Maps Show A Completely Different World, One You Won’t Recognize

November 10, 2020 By Justin Lessner

Climate change isn’t something that we’re stopping from happening in the future. Make no mistake – climate change is already here. Large swaths of the U.S. already seem less livable—just ask anyone currently living on the West Coast, where at least 36 people have died so far in the current wildfires, and the air quality in Portland, Oregon, was rated so hazardous that the county tweeted that no one should go outside. 

As climate change scrambles geographies, experts are asking and citizens are wondering: Which parts of the world will humans find habitable in 50 years? How will species’ ranges shift? How might we think about urbanization and globalization? Thankfully, maps are here to help us better understand just what our future holds.

When it comes to climate change, heat may be the driving factor forcing entire communities to move.

Credit: propublica.org

One of the largest risks posed by a changing climate is extreme heat, particularly in the South and Southwestern United States. By the middle of the century, if emissions continue on their current paths, parts of Arizona could be over 95 degrees half of the year. (Another recent report also maps out how extreme heat will increase across the country.) In some areas, the combination of extreme heat and humidity could begin to cross a deadly “wet bulb” threshold that makes it potentially deadly to be outside at all.

Today, the combination of truly dangerous heat and humidity is rare. But by 2050, parts of the Midwest and Louisiana could see conditions that make it difficult for the human body to cool itself for nearly one out of every 20 days in the year. New projections for farm productivity also suggest that growing food will become difficult across large parts of the country, including the heart of the High Plains’ $35 billion agriculture industry.

Rising sea levels will permanently alter our borders, boundaries, and landscapes.

This map paints a very stark image of what our future could potentially look like. If all of our world’s ice melted we would expect to see an estimated 80 meters (262 feet) of sea-level rise and it would fundamentally altar the coastline of the United States. Even though the melting could take thousands of years, this drastic reshaping of the coasts paints a stark picture of what may come.

And the rate of change seems to be accelerating. Recent studies have shown that Greenland is losing 500 gigatons of ice each year, more than can be replenished by new snowfall. Annual ice loss is 14% greater today than it was between 1985 and 1999. 

“Understanding the complexity of individual glacier response is critical to improving projections of ice sheet change and the associated sea level rise that will arrive at our shores,” study co-author Alex Gardner, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

Communities will be under increased threat of wildfires all across the country.

Credit: propublica.org

This year has been a record-breaking fire season across the U.S., but few places have been hit as hard as California. In fact, the state is battling its worst wildfire season on record. Unfortunately, new research shows that fall fire weather days — days with high temperatures, low humidity and high wind speeds — will double in parts of the state by the end of the century and will increase 40% by 2065.

In California, the biggest increase in wildfire threats will likely occur along the coast and in the Sierra Nevada – two areas already struggling to contain massive wildfires. That means more fires in places like Yosemite National Park, which had to close last month due to smoke, and in the Los Angeles-Orange County megalopolis. By 2050, if emissions continue unabated, L.A. could see up to 12 days of severe fire weather each fall, and Yosemite as many as 14.

California’s fire season typically runs from July to December, but September through November are especially deadly — and this September was the hottest and the most fiery on record. The Creek Fire, Bobcat Fire, El Dorado Fire, Glass Fire, Slater/Devil Fire, Zogg Fire … the burning never stopped, the smoke never cleared. They won’t for some time.

All of these changes in our climate will have a massive effect on our communities.

Some states will be hit harder economically as rising temperatures and other changes make it harder to work outside, push energy bills higher, and affect agriculture. A 2017 map of the economic effects of climate change showed similar impacts.

While some Americans are already beginning to move because of climate change, the maps also show that it isn’t possible to completely avoid the impacts. To help us better understand our relationship with a future U.S., researchers have developed the concept of “climate analogs,” which involve matching the predicted future climate in one location to the current climate in another. Researchers used a suite of climate models to predict the climate of 540 North American cities in the year 2080, then paired those cities’ future climates with today’s urban climates.

For example, if high emissions continue, Los Angeles, CA, will have a 2080 climate comparable to that of Puert Peñasco, Mexico; Philadelphia’s climate analog will be Memphis, Tennessee.

There are tools and maps, such as this one by National Geographic, that illustrate just how different the climate in your area will be. But none of this is guaranteed—the interactive maps on ProPublica‘s site toggle between a worst-case scenario for emissions and a more moderate scenario. Catastrophic climate change is still a policy choice.