More fires, droughts and floods predicted
14 August 2006
As temperatures rise with global warming, an increased risk of forest fires, droughts and flooding is predicted for the next 200 years by climate scientists from the University of Bristol, UK.
Despite the commitment we have already to global warming, even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases now the researchers predict that Eurasia, eastern China, Canada, Central America, and Amazonia are at risk of forest loss (up to 30% probability for a global warming of less then 2°C and increasing to more than 60% for a warming of more than 3°C), while the far north, Amazonia and many semi-arid regions will become more susceptible to wildfires.
Less freshwater availability, and with it more intense droughts, are likely to occur in West Africa, Central America, southern Europe and the eastern USA. Other regions, particularly areas north of 50°N, tropical Africa and northwest South America, will be at significant risk of excessive runoff as trees are lost, increasing the chances of flooding as temperatures rise.
The researchers also found that if the temperature increase is more than 3°C, land carbon sinks could release their stored carbon, starting a positive feedback loop that would increase atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Marko Scholze, lead author on the paper published in PNAS this week, said, "Most importantly we show the steeply increasing risks, and increasingly large areas affected, associated with higher warming levels. This analysis represents a considerable step forward for discussions about 'dangerous' climate change and its avoidance."
The team from QUEST (Quantifying & Understanding the Earth System, a project funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and based at Bristol University), with a colleague from the University of Southampton, quantified the risks of climate-induced changes in key ecosystem processes, using novel methods. They gathered results from more than 50 climate model simulations to calculate these risks and then grouped the results according to varying amounts of global warming: less than 2°C, 2-3°C, and more than 3°C.
For each of the temperature groups they show the probability of shifts in forest cover and the areas which exceed the natural variability in wildfire frequency or freshwater supply for the coming 200 years.
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1. QUEST (Quantifying & Understanding the Earth System) is a programme funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). The purpose of QUEST's £21m programme is to deliver a step-change improvement in scientists' ability to predict environmental change; assess the implications for the sustainable use of resources; seek action-oriented research outputs; and inform decision-making. A better qualitative and quantitative understanding of the Earth System is necessary, especially the interactions among the atmosphere, oceans, land and human activities. QUEST is highly interdisciplinary, building on existing expertise in the UK and abroad, integrating natural and social sciences, and maintaining a dialogue with UK government departments, with results also relevant to international policy making, industry and society. QUEST is led by Colin Prentice, Professor of Earth System Science, at the University of Bristol.
2. The paper:
A climate change risk analysis for world ecosystems.
Marko Scholze, Wolfgang Knorr, Nigel W Arnell and Colin Prentice.
PNAS (Biological Sciences/Environmental Sciences) published online 14 August 2006.
Press release: 48/06
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