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“Climate catastrophe? Here’s what the U.S. could look like” post-2050

By Joe Romm  

"“Climate catastrophe? Here’s what the U.S. could look like” post-2050"


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A reader points out that the front page of MSN today has an impressive story on climate impacts, “Climate Catastrophe? Here’s What the U.S. Could Look Like in 2100.”  Those impacts should be motivation enough for action as is, but in fact the story would be a much more accurate portrayal of the latest science with just the tiniest of changes:  replace “in 2100″ with “post-2050.” MSN asserts with unusual bluntness:

… you wonder, “Is climate disaster already upon us?”

Scientists say the answer is “yes.” We are now experiencing the effects of human-caused climate change and, even if we drastically alter our polluting behavior today, we’ll continue to see changes over the next two to three decades. This change is irreversible, and researchers predict it may be worse than the depressing situation Al Gore foretold in An Inconvenient Truth.

Precisely.  Here is the region-by-region warning “if we don’t act now”:

Pacific Northwest: Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska

What we could see in 2100 post-2050: Heavier rains, dramatic warming over higher latitudes and sea-level rise.

… “There will be very dramatic warming over the higher latitudes of both hemispheres,” says [Jim Hurrell, PhD, a senior atmospheric scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)]. Studies on temperature changes that have already occurred show that Alaska has experienced a 3.6 degree Fahrenheit increase since 1951….

And the planet as a whole has only warmed a little over 1°F since then — so imagine how hot the West and Alaska will get when the planet as a whole warms several times that post-2050.

The Northwest will also be affected by the anticipated two to three feet of sea level rise…

Well, that is a good prediction for post-2050, but the range for 2100 is now closer to 3 to 7 feet (see here and here).

Rocky Mountains: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Montana

What we could see in 2100 post-2050: Shorter snow season, early snowmelt, drought, wildfire and water issues

… “In the future, the snow season will get shorter, the snow pack will be less, and runoff could easily occur a month or two earlier,” says Trenberth [head of the Climate Analysis Section at NCAR)]. “Instead of having peak runoff in June, it could happen in April. Then, by the time you get to June, [the entire region] is a lot drier” [than it is now].

Northeast: Virginia to Maine

What we could see in 2100 post-2050: Harsher storms, extreme sea level rise and flooding

… Hurrell: “On average, global sea levels will go up two to three feet.” But scientists expect that in some coastal cities, such as Boston and New York, complex ocean currents that will change as our climate changes will add an extra 8 inches to that increase in water level.

[Note:  If anybody has a source for that extra 8 inches, let me know.]

Southeast: The Gulf Coast states, up to Carolina

What we could see in 2100 post-2050: Hurricanes, wind damage, storm surges, flooding, extra sea level rise

The Southeast can also expect more extreme hurricanes, similar to the conditions that came together around Hurricane Katrina. “There are three main risks,” says Trenberth. “There is risk for increased wind damage, risk for a storm surge, which is very coastal and exacerbated by higher sea levels, and then a bit further inland, there is an increased risk of flooding from torrential rains.”

See “Nature: Hurricanes ARE getting fiercer “” and it’s going to get much worse” and links therein for further discussion.

The Northern Plains, Midwest and Great Lakes

What we could see in 2100 post-2050: Stronger storms (tornados, heavy rains) occurring throughout the year and warmer winters

Some estimates predict temperature changes as high as 5 to 12 degrees Fahrenheit in winter, and 5 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit in summer by 2100.

Warmer winters can lead to an increase in infectious diseases such as Lyme disease, West Nile virus and dengue fever, says Knowlton, as warmer winter weather allows insect populations to remain active longer each year.

Southwest: Arizona, New Mexico, California and Nevada

What we could see in 2100 post-2050: Drought and water shortages, heat waves and wildfire

… “The increased heating of the earth’s surface not only raises temperatures, but it increases evaporation which makes dry soils even drier,” says Hurrell. “Droughts will become more severe, frequent and longer lasting.”

This is clearly a post-2050 impact.  Two years ago, Science (subs. req’d) published research that “predicted a permanent drought by 2050 throughout the Southwest” on our current emissions path “” levels of aridity comparable to the 1930s Dust Bowl would stretch from Kansas to California.  The Bush Administration itself reaffirmed this conclusion in December (see US Geological Survey stunner: SW faces “permanent drying” by 2050).

Let me end with the key points:

“What happens in the next 20 or 30 years is largely already determined.” says Kevin Tranberth, ScD, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). “Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have already increased by more than 35 percent since pre-industrial times, owing to human activities. Over half of that increase has occurred since 1970.”

Although this prognosis seems dire, there is hope. While we can’t change the polluting that has already occurred, we can make changes now that will leave a cleaner world for our children and grandchildren….  Tranberth agrees. “If we act now, the benefit comes about 30 to 40 years from now,” he says. “We can still have a big impact on what happens in the second half of this century.”

The time to act is now.


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25 Responses to “Climate catastrophe? Here’s what the U.S. could look like” post-2050

  1. Leland Palmer says:

    This is the future, or even worse than this, and faster. That’s the way that positive feedback works, of course. Like igniting a fire, it starts slowly but can quickly burn higher and higher, under the right conditions. These projections do not include the “unknown unknowns” of course – and in such a complex system we can be sure that there are some.

    This is the future, unless we actively and massively start putting carbon back underground.

    We need to seize the coal fired power plants, and convert them into biocarbon fuel, oxyfuel combustion, and deep injection of the resulting nearly pure stream of CO2.

    One of the best sources of information on this idea is the Biopact website:


    The above article from Biopact lists some of the shortcomings with the idea, especially in tropical countries.

    But I believe that these shortcomings can be overcome, and that the synergies of combining biomass energy with CCS, while managing forests to prevent wildfires, displacing fossil fuel use, generating useful electricity, reducing methane emissions from carbonaceous waste, and actually putting carbon underground at the same time, could overpower everything else, in a well managed carbon negative energy production system.

    But the fire has been ignited, and it is burning higher. Massive and immediate action is necessary.

  2. Jim Beacon says:

    *sigh…* Once again I have to point out that 2100 — or even 2050 — is simply too far away for the majority of voters in America to be willing to pay the cost and endure the inconvenience to seriously do anything about it. That’s just the way most people are. It is why we didn’t do anything about this 30 years ago. It is why, after a short period of driving small fuel-efficient vehicles in the late 1970′s and early 1980′s that people went back to purchasing gas-guzzlers. It is why people continued to believe the promise that “clean coal is just around the corner” for the last 40 years and so did nothing more to legislate the power plants.

    Writers need to accept this fact about people and focus on the next 20 years, out to 2030 or so. I know it is not as dramatic, but surely it will be bad enough at the post-IPCC pace we are now seeing to make the case.

    What’s really wrong about this MSN piece (and a lot of what I’ve seen in the media lately), is that writers are now focusing on the idea that no matter what we do that the nightmare scenario is irreversible and inevitable. That may be true, but hammering away on that idea only depresses people and make them think “Well, there’s no point in trying to do anything then, is there?” This is NOT the effect we want to create.

  3. paulm says:

    …that extra 8 inches

    I think they were referring to this study…


  4. charlie says:

    In all honesty, outside of CA and the mountain west it doesn’t sound too bad.

    [JR: And the SW, and coastal areas, especially in hurricane alley. Otherwise, it'll be fine if you like it hot all the time.]

    A 5 to 12 increase in temperature during the winter in the midwest would be welcome. A 20 degree increase in the summer would be painful. I suspect it would be more like Virginia or North Carolina in the summer where you can reach 100 degrees on very hot days.

    The water issues out west will be very interesting to sort out.

  5. paulm says:

    the story would be a much more accurate portrayal of the latest science with just the tiniest of changes: replace “in 2100″ with “post-2050.”

    Its going to be worse than most of us here think! Its the tipping action you see…

    Our inability to understand the exponential function

    Bacteria grow by doubling. One bacterium divides to become two, the two divide to become 4, the 4 become 8, 16 and so on. Suppose we had bacteria that doubled in number this way every minute. Suppose we put one of these bacteria into an empty bottle at 11:00 in the morning, and then observe that the bottle is full at 12:00 noon. There’s our case of just ordinary steady growth: it has a doubling time of one minute, it’s in the finite environment of one bottle.

    I want to ask you three questions. Number one: at what time was the bottle half full? Well, would you believe 11:59, one minute before 12:00? Because they double in number every minute.

    And the second question: if you were an average bacterium in that bottle, at what time would you first realise you were running of space? Well, let’s just look at the last minutes in the bottle. At 12:00 noon, it’s full; one minute before, it’s half full; 2 minutes before, it’s a quarter full; then an 1?8th; then a 1?16th. Let me ask you, at 5 minutes before 12:00, when the bottle is only 3% full and is 97% open space just yearning for development, how many of you would realise there’s a problem?

    They search offshore on the outer continental shelf and in the overthrust belt and in the Arctic, and they find three new bottles. Now that’s an incredible discovery, that’s three times the total amount of resource they ever knew about before. They now have four bottles, before their discovery, there was only one. Now surely this will give them a sustainable society, won’t it?

    You know what the third question is: how long can the growth continue as a result of this magnificent discovery? Well, look at the score: at 12:00 noon, one bottle is filled, there are three to go; 12:01, two bottles are filled, there are two to go; and at 12:02, all four are filled and that’s the end of the line.

  6. Steve H says:

    These predictions are pretty weak. Most of this is already occurring. For the midwest, a better prediction would be one like where we can plant in March, but the crops may not be mature enough to be productive by the time June comes and the rains stop.

  7. Gail says:

    Charlie, did we read the same article?

    It’s hardly just temperature increase! It’s floods, hurricanes, tornados, droughts, and collapsing ecosystems.

    Not so bad? Oh, just the end of the world as we know it…

  8. Bullwinkle says:


    I think 2050 is more immediate and is far better than 2100. Anyone under the age of 50 or so stand a good chance living that long. Who wants their Florida retirement home lost to SLR?

    More importantly, can we sway the Megan McCain’s of the world? I think the gay marriage issue is a good indicator of the ability of the right wing youth to flip their dead-ender party leaders.

  9. Nathan Srigley says:

    Unless you’re educated and willing to think about the real impacts of these changes it sounds like a forecast for your favorite vacation spot.

    We need to drill it into people that their children and grandchildren will know they were resposable for destroying ecological diveristy, ruining the clean water and air, and most importantly PURSUING THEIR LEISURES AND GREED WHEN THEY WERE TOLD REPEATEDLY IT WOULD DESTROY EARTH AS THEY KNOW IT!!!!

  10. Nathan Srigley says:

    first of all I will apoligize for post whoring

    “can we sway the Megan McCain’s of the world? I think the gay marriage issue is a good indicator of the ability of the right wing youth to flip their dead-ender party leaders.”

    If you have ever shared a living space with someone who didnt clean up after themselves you know that these kinds of people just cannot change!

    the only solution is to clean up after them or kick them out.

    I am sure that everyone on this site would strap on that giant boot and start picking names, but its not an option, infortunatley in this case the ‘messy roomate’ is armed to the teeth, bathes in money, and is hell-bent on desroying life on earth.

  11. It may be more dramatic to regard the year 2050 instead of 2100, but we should not forget that warming destabilization does not magically stop at the year 2100, it continues on for hundreds of years – no matter who is left.

  12. Gail says:

    Megan McCain is nothing but a spoiled glutton for attention, and she’s getting it by being all mavericky. She’s the Paris Hilton of politics.

  13. Dill Weed says:

    Isn’t Megan kinda chunky?

    Dill Weed

  14. Robert says:

    “…the majority of voters in America to be willing to pay the cost and endure the inconvenience to seriously do anything about it.”

    It isn’t just about America. Believe it or not there is a whole wide world out there and we are all polluting as fast as we can go. If the US magically reduced CO2 emissions to zero overnight it would make very little difference to the global outcome – and hence would not save the US from their forecast climate woes.

    It is a simple case of the “Tragedy of the Commons” – rational individual behavious adds up to irrational group behaviour. Keep the focus on global political solutions not domestic point scoring. We are all in the same boat and it won’t be enough to fix the holes in the US end.

  15. Gail says:

    Robert, the US has been a leader in the past and should lead the way on climate change. We are the worst polluters – we have by far the highest carbon footprint per capita in the world. Realistically, nothing will happen if America doesn’t show the way. That’s the reason it’s so important that US citizens need to support our President and the legislators that are in favor of capping carbon and subsidizing green energy.

    It would be naive to think the US on its own can halt climate change. It’s equally naive to think the rest of the world can do much without US leadership in the effort.

  16. OTerry says:

    The focus of the MSN article is on the USA, obviously in order to appeal to its US audience. However I think it is crucial to highlight and educate people about the change that is occurring outside of the USA.

    The effects of climate change are undoubtedly going to be dire for all of the planet. It is the areas that are much less able to afford adaptation (i.e. everywhere other than the USA and Europe) that will feel the most extreme pain.

    US citizens (such as Charlie above) may read this article and think “oh, that doesn’t sound to bad” and think that they can personally adapt themselves quite easily to the new climate.

    Such a naive understanding of the situation belies the true danger of climate change. America will remain inhabitable, while elsewhere, crop failure, disease, sea level rise, etc will have a much large impact. This will lead to *very* significant social and economic costs to Americans (and the developed world in general).

    So perhaps instead of telling someone from Iowa that climate change means more days wearing shorts, what might be more effective is to tell them that food prices will skyrocket, water will be valued higher than, and that the USA will be perhaps relied upon to keep the whole planet from becoming a “failed state”.

    What we desperately need is a US version of the Stern report! A cost needs to be associated with climate change. People (myself included) can barely understand the sheer size of the current deficit, let alone the cost of climate change. Perhaps if people are told “by 2050, climate change will cost every America $xxx,xxx (?) per year” then the scale will be better understood, and real action can be taken sooner.

  17. Don says:

    The 8-inch additional sea level rise along the NE coast is from actually from http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v2/n4/abs/ngeo462.html.

  18. DavidCOG says:

    Skimming the first 20 comments at http://lifestyle.msn.com/your-life/living-green/staticslideshowgreenchan.aspx?cp-documentid=18995580 makes for unpleasant reading. One could hope that the article was posted to a Denier mailing list and they all descended with their usual idiocy, but what if those comments are indicative of the average citizen? It’s clear that none of those people are going to willingly change their gluttonous consumption one little bit.

    Gail, that’s not strictly true about USA being highest per capita for CO2 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_carbon_dioxide_emissions_per_capita – although the countries that are higher are sparsely populated and mostly located in deserts. A pertinent comparison is that the USA produces two or three times more CO2 per capita than comparable (climate, wealth) countries in Europe. So, yes, USA has a moral obligation to be most pro-active in climate mitigation. However, I think this train of discussion is irrelevant – it’s like a bunch of people sat on a sinking boat arguing over who should start bailing out first. :)

  19. DavidCOG says:

    Really? *Two* links and a comment hits the moderation queue? :/

  20. Joe B says:

    This article should have said A LOT MORE about infectious diseases, tropical diseases rushing north, insects-born diseases and pest infections of our people, our crops, our homes, salinization of our coastal water sources, extreme price competition for food crops…..! WHY DO ALL THESE CLIMATE CHANGE ARTICLES STILL FOCUS ON SIMPLE SEA LEVEL RISE!?!

  21. Robert says:

    Gail – Maybe, but I don’t think global change will happen unless the UN gets more support and power. The world needs to start acting (and being governed) like a single country rather than 200+ competitors.

    I can’t see even Europe viewing the US as a leader until its emissions halve down to European levels. As for China and India, the gulf in per-capita emissions is unbridgable…!

    Logical conclusion – the US (and other countries) must be prepared to hand over political power from their own government to the UN. Countries in the EU have been through the same pain in handing power to Brussels so it can be done. You just have to overcome the US’s apparent superiority complex and disdain of all things non-American!

  22. Lou Grinzo says:

    I think we need to find someone or some group that can fund a documentary on this, in the form of newscasts from the year 2050. If this were well done in terms of both production values and not overreaching (because none is needed), I think it could make a lot of people see where we’re headed.

    News stories about climate refugees, fighting over water (sometimes legally, sometimes with weapons), infectious disease outbreaks, plus all the climate impacts mentioned in the MSN story, could be disturbing enough to make the needed conceptual breakthrough.

    I’m completely serious about this. If anyone here has the right connections to start such a project, I would very gladly work on it. I can be contacted through the About page on my web site (click my name).

  23. Mike Doering says:

    It looks like this is the source for the of the claim about the “extra 8 inches”


  24. David B. Benson says:

    DavidCOG — Yes, that is correct.