With current consumption levels, temperatures predicted to rise across America

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With current consumption levels, temperatures predicted to rise across America

By Zack Fishman, Contributing Writer

The United States is on track for significantly warmer temperatures and more frequent heat waves that could threaten the health and livelihood of Americans everywhere, according to a new climate study from the University of Illinois.

Led by Zach Zobel, graduate student in LAS, and professor Don Wuebbles of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, an international leader in climate change studies, the research provides detailed predictions of future regional temperatures. With groundbreaking precision, they predicted that in the next several decades, areas across the U.S. will experience alarming increases in temperature that may lead to large-scale crop failure, shortages of natural resources, and endangerment of human life.

Climate change has been a pressing topic in recent years, with thousands of scientists running projections that detail the Earth’s current trajectory toward global warming and frequent extreme weather. They conclusively attribute this phenomenon to manmade emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.

But as Zobel explained, while these models are fairly effective at representing the dynamics of the atmosphere and predicting broad climate patterns, they “struggle when it comes to the local extremes, which is why there’s a need for this project.”

Published and highlighted in the journal “Earth’s Future” last December, Zobel’s model boasts an unprecedented level of precision, being ten times more precise than most other climate models. This accuracy allows Zobel to zoom in on specific regions of the country to predict their mid- and late-century climate.

“During the summer, southern regions saw a much greater increase in extreme temperatures than what we see in the northern regions,” he said, “whereas the northern regions saw the biggest increase in the wintertime when it comes to extreme temperatures.”

However, almost every American will experience higher temperatures under current emission patterns, Zobel claimed. “By the end of the century, we’re going to see drastically different climate in most of the regions in the United States, if not all of them,” he said.

These higher temperatures have real consequences for society. Populations not accustomed to the frequent and intense heat waves will experience serious health problems, while yields of basic crops like corn and soybeans will dramatically fall at sustained higher temperatures.

These results were generated assuming that worldwide consumption of fossil fuels will continue unabated, but Zobel ran a second simulation that modeled a major global reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. He obtained significantly different findings.

According to the second model, reduced emissions would cause temperatures to peak mid-century before stabilizing, so by the 2090s, some U.S. regions would experience dozens of fewer extremely hot summer days and snowless winter days than if emissions weren’t reduced.

If carbon dioxide emissions are substantially cut in the real world as modeled in the second simulation, “the potential impact on human lives would be dramatic,” Wuebbles said. “[The study] tells us we need to be thinking about how we can reduce emissions and recognizing that we have solutions. We do not need to be reliant on fossil fuels as we have in the past.”

Atmospheric sciences assistant professor Ryan Sriver, who studies climate change uncertainties and their effects on decision-making, believes this study could help to inform local policymakers. According to Sriver, the study’s high-resolution technique provides predictions specific to individual regions, which is important for decision-makers in these regions concerned with future climate.

“Think of it as a tool for transforming our understanding of the global system into a regional product that can be used for local decisions related to climate change,” Sriver said. “The research is more expansive and comprehensive than anything I’ve seen to this day so I applaud [Zobel and Wuebbles] for that.”

However, Sriver has some questions about the study’s rigor. To handle the high mathematical demands of the model, Zobel and Wuebbles utilized Blue Waters, the Illinois supercomputer that can consume significant time and electricity to complete immense calculations.

For such a large cost, “What do you actually learn from going to this higher resolution?” Sriver asked. “Are you simply increasing the fidelity or are you learning something new?” He claimed that he would like to see the results compared to a simpler, less costly high-resolution method to answer these questions.

Nevertheless, Zobel and Wuebbles, who are now applying the advanced computing method to predict future precipitation patterns, see their work as important to understanding the implications of climate change on human society.

Describing the dangerous heat that potentially lies ahead, Wuebbles said concisely, “What was uncommon is going to become common.”

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