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In California, Climate Change Is ‘Real, And It’s Already Here’

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"In California, Climate Change Is ‘Real, And It’s Already Here’"

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A monitoring station at Lake Tahoe, Calif.

A monitoring station at Lake Tahoe, Calif.

CREDIT: AP Photo/UC Davis

California is already feeling the dramatic effects of climate change, according to a new report released Thursday by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

The study, written by 51 scientists, tracked a variety of indicators and found widespread evidence of the toll climate change is taking across the across the state, including more frequent and intense wildfires, rising sea levels, shrinking glaciers, warmer lakes and oceans, and hotter temperatures. These ripple effects of these changes threaten communities, industry, public health, and the state’s prized natural resources.

“Climate change is not just some abstract scientific debate,” said California EPA Secretary Matt Rodriquez. “It’s real, and it’s already here.”

Californians are already suffering from a growing number of heat-related illnesses and deaths and those figures are projected to rise along with temperatures. The report found that in most regions of the state, warming has accelerated over the past three decades. During the summer, heat extremes have increased and nighttime heat waves have risen across the state. As climate change drives temperatures up, it poses a serious risk to public health. As evidence of this, the report notes that “the July 2006 heat wave, unprecedented in its magnitude and geographic extent, resulted in 140 heat-related deaths in California.”

Coastal residents will feel climate change at work as rising seas threaten their communities and quality of life. Sea levels measured at San Francisco and La Jolla have already risen by eight and six inches over the past century and as water levels continue to climb along California’s coast, the report predicts that “it could lead to flooding of low-lying areas, loss of coastal wetlands … erosion of cliffs and beaches, saltwater contamination of drinking water, impacts on roads and bridges, and harmful ecological effects along the coastline.”

As with much of the western U.S., California wildfires have grown bigger, stronger and more frequent in recent decades. The report found that annual acerage burned statewide has been steadily increasing and “the three largest fire years occurred in the last ten years.” And the average number of acres scorched every year since 2000 is almost double the average of the previous 50 years — 598,000 acres annually now, compared with 264,000 acres a year then.

These major climactic shifts are having an impact on the state’s vegetation and wildlife, as well. The forests of the Sierra Nevada are retreating upslope, which will impact birds, mammals and other species, and forests are growing denser, which could lead to larger and more frequent fires and make trees more vulnerable to insect outbreaks and disease.

Warming temperatures, reduced upwelling, and increased acidity in the oceans has serious implications for the California’s treasured marine life. The report points to the dramatic decline in Chinook salmon population since 2004 and increased sea lion pup mortality and coastal strandings among the changes already being observed.

While the report’s findings may seem grim, previous warnings regarding California’s vulnerability to climate change have not fallen on deaf ears. The state has led the nation in the transition to a clean economy and worked to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions through several initiatives. California has implemented its own cap-and-trade system and the landmark law AB32, signed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006, requiring the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by about 25 percent by 2020. As the Mercury News notes, however, large-scale reductions won’t be easy: “So far, emissions are up 3 percent since 1990, although they have dipped in the past five years because of the Great Recession and increased use of high-mileage cars as well as solar and wind power.”

Officials hope this latest snapshot will serve as further motivation to continue the progress that’s already been made. As Secretary Rodriguez explained, “We’re doing what we can in California to address climate change. It’s our hope that we can avoid some of the more extreme effects.”

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