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Climate Report Calls for Engineering Solutions

Aerial map indicating the behemoth storm that formed off the coast of New England on March 26
Such extreme storms as the behemoth that formed off the coast of New England on March 26 will become more common—along with extreme heat waves and droughts—as climate change progresses, according to a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But engineered solutions can help mitigate and protect against damage, the report says. NOAA

The IPCC’s Working Group II examines the impacts of climate change already observed around the world and the need for effective engineered adaptations.

April 8, 2014—Glaciers are shrinking, species are migrating to cooler geographic regions, wheat and corn yields are declining, and extreme heat waves, droughts, and storms are damaging ecosystems and infrastructure. These changes in natural systems are the most visible indicators that climate change is creating new risk scenarios to which humans must adapt quickly, according to a new report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on March 31.

The report presents evidence that climate change is occurring and projects future changes and the accompanying risks. The report also examines adaptation strategies that are already being implemented and the opportunities for further adaptations to offset some of the impacts of climate change.

The report, Climate Change 2014: Adaptation and Vulnerability, was developed by Working Group II of the IPCC. The project was an ambitious undertaking; more than 700 authors and editors from 70 countries contributed in some way to the final product, which was evaluated by 1,729 reviewers.

The report examines climate change under two model emission scenarios—one with significant global efforts to reduce CO2 emissions and one in which emissions continue at current levels. The authors note that both scenarios generate similar global temperature increases for several decades before diverging. Thus, any adaptation or mitigation strategies employed will reap benefits even if a significant CO2 reduction is achieved.

“The report has a lot of bad news in it and it shows grave risk. But it also shows that people, societies, and governments are beginning to take steps to tackle those risks,” said Christopher Field, Ph.D., a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute, at a press conference at the report’s release. Some of these adaptations are fairly straightforward, but others will involve the use of technology and advanced engineering.

“Much of the report [details] how we are learning from the steps already being taken and how we can use this learning to raise ambitions for more successful and more comprehensive adaptation in the future,” said Field, who cochaired Working Group II with Vicente Barros, Ph.D., a professor emeritus at the University of Buenos Aires who specializes in climatology.

“We live in an era of man-made climate change,” Barros said in a press release announcing the report. “In many cases, we are not prepared for the climate-related risks that we already face. Investments in better preparation can pay dividends both for the present and for the future.”

The report notes the risks to such key areas of civil engineering as water quality, energy, transportation, and construction. Water supplies, for instance, are under increasing stress in dry regions of the United States, while mean annual stream flow is actually increasing in other areas. And snow melt in mountainous areas has been observed to be in decline.

The report’s researchers project declines in the quality of water in streams, lakes, and rivers, attributable to a variety of factors, including increasingly common wildfires, increasing biomass growths facilitated by warmer temperatures, and oxygen deficits in late summer in some water bodies.

The increasing frequency of heavy storms will tax the resources of some wastewater treatment plants. Flooding is projected to increase, and losses from flooding in the United States are projected to reach as much as $19 billion annually in 2100, from the $2 billion annual average now.

The report notes that the aging transportation infrastructure in the United States is vulnerable to the projected increases in intense precipitation, drought, sea-level rise, and storm surges. The authors cite research indicating that more than 50 percent of the highways and rail lines in the U.S. Gulf Coast would be inundated by a 7 m storm surge once sea level rise has reached 1 m. Adaptation strategies include raising or hardening transportation infrastructure in coastal areas and developing new highway and rail line materials to withstand extreme temperatures.

The authors note that adaptation strategies have, to this point, focused on addressing past challenges or current challenges, not anticipating future risks. “If there’s a central theme to this Working Group II report, it’s really that climate change is a challenge in managing risks,” Field said. “We know plenty about the climate changes that have already occurred—and about the climate changes that are projected—to make smart decisions. But we need to start making those decisions in the framework of managing risk.”

This report is a portion the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, which will be released later this year.



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