Weathering the Heat 

In the decades ahead, as temperatures rise and droughts intensify, Northern California's climate, vegetation, and wildlife may look more like Southern California does today.

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However, because California sits on the transition zone between the subtropical deserts and the wet latitudes watered by the global westerly winds, the state's climatic future is not a sure thing. Williams explained that the poleward shift of the subtropical deserts will probably occur in an uneven, wobbly line, making it difficult to predict how the change will specifically affect California.

"The one thing we can all bet on is it's going to get hotter," Williams said.

He has personally helped construct models that predict the state — already 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer on average than it was in preindustrial times — could be another 5 degrees warmer by the century's end if no significant progress is made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The warmer temperatures will mean that less precipitation falls as snow. Mountain snowpack is currently the state's largest water storage source, and as it retreats, water security will be compromised for millions of people. Farmers may have insufficient water to irrigate their land. Losing snowmelt will also increase the seasonality of streams, which will gush with water during rainy spells and quickly disappear as spring rains taper off and the mountains drain dry. This could doom the state's native salmon and trout, according to scientists with UC Davis and the group California Trout. They released a report in May warning of likely extinction for dozens of genetically distinct species and populations by 2100.

It may be possible to stop global warming — but definitely not on a dime, Williams said. He said that no matter how swiftly humans curb emissions of greenhouse gases, the Earth's temperatures will continue rising for decades.

"We're locked in for warming over the next 30 years," he said.


For theoretical purposes, scientists frequently discuss what would happen if the entire global community halted greenhouse gas emissions overnight. It's an impossible scenario, but it helps set a baseline for how real the effects of global warming are going to be.

That's because, even if emissions of greenhouse gases stopped tomorrow, positive feedback cycles that are already happening will drive warming for many years. The disappearance of sea ice cover, for instance, means that less sunlight is deflected back into space. Instead, the oceans absorb the sun's energy, causing temperatures to increase globally as currents transfer the heat around the planet.

Another positive feedback cycle relates to Arctic permafrost, which is thawing as record heatwaves — with temperatures into the 80s — strike the Arctic. The softening of this frozen soil releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that has been locked in the ground for millennia, further driving the planet's greenhouse effect. Similarly, as droughts worsen, large areas of forest will die and release vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

Conversely, Williams noted that some areas around the globe will get greener. Plants, after all, consume CO2, and more of the gas in the air allows plants to grow faster.

Yet even if emissions stopped tomorrow, the sea would continue rising, said Zack Wasserman, chair of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and a lawyer at the Oakland law firm Wendel Rosen. "For rising sea level, we've passed the tipping point," Wasserman said. "If greenhouse gas emissions went to zero tomorrow, the sea would continue to rise through this century and into the next."

The ocean's surface, on average around the globe, is now 6 to 8 inches higher than it was in 1900, according to the Smithsonian Institution. The change is due mainly to the melting of the continental polar ice caps of Antarctica and Greenland (and less so to the thermal expansion of the now-warmer oceans). Projections vary for what we can expect in the next 80 years, from 3 feet of rise to as high as 20. Familiar landmarks will disappear under the surf. Maps will need to be updated every few decades. Seawalls might be needed to prevent Alameda and downtown Oakland and San Francisco from looking and functioning like Venice, Italy.

Amplified hurricanes and the low-pressure cells that come with them will periodically accentuate rising average sea levels with storm surges that swamp coastal cities. Climate Central has warned that an average global temperature increase of 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit will cause the ocean to swell enough to directly displace as many as 760 million people. Stopping warming at 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the organization reports, would mean just 130 million people displaced.

But stopping warming at 3.6 degrees from preindustrial times is starting to look futile. In all likelihood, the planet will be 6.1 degrees Fahrenheit warmer by 2100, according to a United Nations panel that convened during the 2015 Paris climate talks. The authors of a paper published in the journal Nature in early 2016 predicted a global average of 10 degrees of warming by century's end.

Since water warms less rapidly than land, warming will occur disproportionately over the continents. This will mean countless deadly heatwaves — already a materializing threat. In the summer of 2003, tropical winds shifted north and smothered the European continent for weeks in 100-degree air. Heat, trapped in thick stone walls, essentially baked people in their homes, killing between 35,000 and possibly 70,000 people. Seven years later, a similar weather event snuffed the life out of 55,000 people in Russia. Five years later, a May 2015 spell of hot weather killed more than 2,000 people in India and Pakistan.

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