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Risk to State Dire in Climate Study

Unless checked, global warming could reduce the Sierra snowpack up to 89% by century's end, new research says.

August 17, 2004|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

Global warming could raise average temperatures as much as 10 degrees in California by the end of this century -- sharply curtailing water supplies, causing a rise in heat-related deaths and reducing crop yields -- if the world does not dramatically cut its dependence on fossil fuels, according to a study by 19 scientists published Monday.

The study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, contemplated the consequences of two distinct paths the industrialized world could take in response to a changing climate: maintaining its current reliance on coal, oil and gas, or massively investing in new technologies and alternative energy sources. Burning fossil fuels adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, which increases global temperatures by trapping more of the sun's heat.

Using two new computer models on climate change, the study focused exclusively on impacts in California, citing the state's economic importance, diverse climate and longtime reputation as a leader in environmental protection.

The scientists' findings were stark. Human activities already have caused an increase in the amount of gases that contribute to global warming, and as population grows, some further increases are inevitable, the researchers said. Because of that, the state will have to endure not only higher temperatures but significantly longer summer heat waves no matter which path is taken, they warned.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Nevada will receive substantially less snowfall. Much of the state's water comes from mountain snow, and that snowpack could be reduced by 89% if greenhouse gases are not reduced, the study predicted. Rising temperatures could also produce more heavy precipitation in the spring, forcing managers of rapidly filling reservoirs to release water they would prefer to save for dry summer months.

"The state is not set up to deal with what could be a thorny problem over how to deal with shortages and diversion," said Michael Hanemann, director of the California Climate Change Center at UC Berkeley.

Nonetheless, the study concluded that aggressive measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could make a dent in the global warming problem.

"The question is, are you going to wait 25 years to solve this, or are you going to act on the vast preponderance of evidence that we are accumulating?" said one of the study's authors, Steve Schneider, co-director of Stanford University's Center for Environmental Science and Policy.

If the world continues to release high levels of heat-trapping gases, California's average statewide temperature is likely to rise 7 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, the study concluded.

On the other hand, if nations undertake large-scale reductions -- which the scientists conceded would require major economic and behavioral changes -- temperatures are still likely to rise 4 to 6 degrees by 2100, the study found.

"The choices that we make today and in the near future will determine the outcome of this giant experiment we are undertaking with our planet," said Katharine Hayhoe, an Indiana-based climate consultant who was the lead author of the report. An increase of 7 to 10 degrees "is enough to make many coastal cities feel like inland cities do today, and enough to make inland cities feel like Death Valley," Hayhoe said.

If fossil fuel use is not reduced, the study warned, heat waves in Los Angeles would become six to eight times more frequent, and heat-related deaths would increase five to seven times.

The statewide average temperature, taking in day and night throughout the year, is about 60 degrees. It has slowly risen over the last two decades, climate records show. If it continues rising, scientists say it will exceed the range of historical variation within the next 10 years.

The report was produced by scientists who have specialized in the study of climate change. They include researchers from Stanford, UC Berkeley and the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, as well as government experts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Corvallis Forestry Sciences Laboratory in Oregon.

While the findings were largely in accord with previous predictions about global warming in California, some conclusions were more extreme, a fact that some participants attributed to new, more detailed climate modeling.

"They are very dramatic, but we have seen similar numbers before in other studies," said Peter H. Gleick, president of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security and a 2003 MacArthur fellow who has been studying climate change since the 1980s.

"I guess the surprise is that even the so-called good news doesn't look so good. Those scenarios look very ugly for California. Every scenario shows California's snowpack going away."

Rising temperatures could also affect the state's multibillion-dollar farming industry, the scientists noted. A particular concern is the Napa and Sonoma wine grape harvest, which experts said could be hurt by even a slight uptick in temperature.

"Under higher temperatures, grapes fall off the vine more quickly," and the quality of the valuable fruit can be harmed, said Chris Field, director of the department of global ecology at the Carnegie Institution. Any sizable increase in temperatures "threatens California's status as the leading producer of wine grapes," he said.

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