Climate Change May Increase Heat Waves, Coastal Damage, & Wildfires In California

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The California Natural Resources Agency recently released a new statewide climate change assessment. According to the report, climate change impacts in California will increase in severity over the coming decades. Rising temperatures will result in more heat waves, and by 2050 there might be an extra 11,000 heat-related deaths each year. It is expected there will also be more wildfires. Rising ocean levels will cause billions of dollars in damage to coastal areas. Heather Williams, the Communications Director for CNRA, answered some questions for CleanTechnica about the assessment.

1. The article says billions in coastal damages will occur. Is that an accurate figure, and what will be the primary forms of damage?   

Yes, that is fair to say based on the full oceans report here. Pages 23 and 24 reference a few studies to back this statement up. Billions of dollars’ worth of real estate development (primarily residential properties) line the California shoreline. The total amount and market value of property vulnerable to sea-level rise in California has not been estimated, but property located on beaches and erodible bluffs are at the greatest overall risk. $17.9 billion worth of residential and commercial buildings could be inundated statewide by sea level rise by 2050, with a projected 50 cm (~20 in) of sea level rise. A 100-year coastal flood, on top of this level of sea level rise, would almost double these costs.

The HERA tool uses a model developed in part with funding from California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment allows users to explore economic damages and other impacts from sea-level rise under different scenarios.

2. Could future wildfires be even worse than the recent ones?

Climate change will make forests more susceptible to extreme wildfires. By 2100, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, one study found that the frequency of extreme wildfires burning over approximately 25,000 acres would increase by nearly 50%, and that average area burned statewide would increase by 77% by the end of the century. In the areas that have the highest fire risk, wildfire insurance is estimated to see costs rise by 18% by 2055 and the fraction of property insured would decrease. The new wildfire model developed for the Fourth Assessment predicts that future years may be much worse than 2017.

The full paper on this model can be found here.

3. Could future droughts be worse too?

Yes, with the projection of continued climate change and extreme weather. The water supply from the snowpack by 2050 is anticipated to decline to 2/3rds. This means that when droughts do occur there will already be less water to rely on. Droughts would also be worse because temps would be higher causing increased stress to vegetation, especially agriculture more so than in the last drought California experienced in 2012 to 2016.

4. The article also says there could be damage “…costing up to $50 billion a year by midcentury.” What specific damage might occur?

Page 97 of the statewide summary has a chart with some costs broken out a few examples:

·         Public Health concerns
·         Roadways destroyed due to flooding
·         Critical infrastructure due to sea level and flooding
·         Commercial and residential property destroyed due to sea level and flooding
·         Increase of damages to property and the landscape from megafires
·         Decrease in production of timberlands
·         Water shortages.

5. How many more heat waves might there be?  

Heat-Health Events (HHEs), which predict risk to populations vulnerable to heat, will worsen drastically throughout the state: by mid-century, the Central Valley is projected to experience average Heat-Health Events that are two weeks longer, and HHEs could occur 4 to 10 times more often in the Northern Sierra region. You can go to this site to see particular areas and how they would be affected. HHEs are more predictive for health impacts, but for extreme heat thresholds (which also vary by location) you can also explore the climate impacts with this viewer.

6. The extra deaths that might occur, are they from heat waves?

Yes – 2-3 times more heat related deaths by 2050. This does not include deaths from other impacts exacerbated by climate change like inland flooding, wildfire, worsened air quality, more extreme storms, and other disasters. While heat waves are typically the most deadly natural disaster events in the United States, the total public health impact of these other events is unknown.

7. It also says “sea level rise could exceed 9 feet.” Wouldn’t that mean some parts of California’s coast will be underwater?

Yes. New research has found the potential for the rapid collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which could lead to catastrophic sea level rise of over 10 feet by 2100.  This area of research is developing quickly, and it is still seen as unlikely; however, California is developing robust guidance to evaluate and mitigate coastal hazards from sea-level rise.  A summary of this new research as it applies to California is laid out in this report. Without implementation of protective measures, airports in major urban areas such as San Francisco, Oakland, and San Diego will be susceptible to major flooding from a combination of sea-level rise and storm surge by 2040-2080. San Francisco airport is already at risk of flooding from storm surge. Highways would also be susceptible to sea level rise and Cal Trans is currently conducting climate vulnerability assessment to address these and other impacts.

8. Does drought in forests make trees more vulnerable to insect infestations?

Yes, when trees are drought stressed they are unable to produce sap or pitch to fend of attacks of invasive pests then you can have massive tree die off.  This was experienced over the past few years with the tree mortality in the Sierra Nevada area. Over 129 million trees died due to drought and bark beetles.

9. How much might temperatures in cities like San Francisco and LA increase?

Average temps were increase by 5.6 to 8.8 degrees by 2100. See the link given on heat waves. Reports on the regional impacts of climate change were produced as part of the Fourth Assessment. Here are the reports for San Francisco and Los Angeles.

All Fourth Assessment materials are here.
Please find the full report here.
Summary of the report.

Image Credit: Calilover, Wikipedia, Public domain

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Jake Richardson

Hello, I have been writing online for some time, and enjoy the outdoors. If you like, you can follow me on Twitter:

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