Key uncertainties and research priorities

The major limits in understanding of climate change impacts on North America, and on the ability of its people, economies and ecosystems to adapt to these changes, can be grouped into seven areas.

• Projections of climate changes still have important uncertainties; especially on a regional scale (Christensen et al., 2007: Section 11.5.3). For North America, the greater uncertainty about future precipitation than about future temperature substantially expands the uncertainty of a broad range of impacts on ecosystems (see Section 14.4.2), hydrology and water resources (see Sections 14.4.1,14.4.7), and on industries (see Sections 14.4.6, 14.4.7).

• North American people, economies and ecosystems tend to be much more sensitive to extremes than to average conditions [14.2]. Incomplete understanding of the relationship between changes in the average climate and extremes (Meehl et al., 2007: Section 10.3.6; Christensen et al., 2007: Section limits our ability to connect future conditions with future impacts and the options for adaptation. There is a need for improved understanding of the relationship between changes in average climate and those extreme events with the greatest potential impact on North America, including hurricanes, other severe storms, heatwaves, floods, and prolonged droughts.

• For most impacts of climate change, we have at least some tools for estimating gradual change (see Section 14.4), but we have few tools for assessing the conditions that lead to tipping points, where a system changes or deteriorates rapidly, perhaps without further forcing.

• Most of the past research has addressed impacts on a single sector (e.g., health, transportation, unmanaged ecosystems). Few studies address the interacting responses of diverse sectors impacted by climate change, making it very difficult to evaluate the extent to which multi-sector responses limit options or push situations toward tipping points (see Section 14.4.9).

• Very little past research addresses impacts of climate change in a context of other trends with the potential to exacerbate impacts of climate change or to limit the range of response options (see Section 14.4.9) (but see Reid et al., 2005 for an important exception). A few North American examples of trends likely to complicate the development of strategies for dealing with climate change include continuing development in coastal areas (see Section 14.2.3), increasing demand on freshwater resources (see Section 14.4.1), the accumulation of fuel in forest ecosystems susceptible to wildfire (see Box 14.1), and continued introductions of invasive species with the potential to disrupt agriculture and ecosystem processes (see Section 14.2.2,14.2.4). In the sectors that are the subject of the most intense human management (e.g., health, agriculture, settlements, industry), it is possible that changes in technology or organisation could exacerbate or ameliorate impacts of climate change (see Section 14.4.9).

• Indirect impacts of climate change are poorly understood. In a world of ever-increasing globalisation, the future of North American people, economies and ecosystems is connected to the rest of the world through a dense network of cultural exchanges, trade, mixing of ecosystems, human migration and, regrettably, conflict (see Section 14.3). In this interconnected world, it is possible that profoundly important impacts of climate change on North America will be indirect consequences of climate change impacts on other regions, especially where people, economies or ecosystems are unusually vulnerable.

• Examples of North American adaptations to climate-related impacts are abundant, but understanding of the options for proactive adaptation to conditions outside the range of historical experience is limited (see Section 14.5).

All of these areas potentially interact, with impacts that are unevenly distributed among regions, industries, and communities. Progress in research and management is occurring in all these areas. Yet stakeholders and decision makers need information immediately, placing a high priority on strategies for providing useful decision support in the context of current knowledge, conditioned by an appreciation of the limits of that knowledge.

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