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14 compelling graphics from new National Climate Assessment

The federal government’s new National Climate Assessment paints a grim portrait of climate change’s impacts on the United States.

The 841-page report is full of graphics explaining how the rise of greenhouse gas emissions is already transforming the American West and the rest of the country. I’ve extracted the 14 images that I found most striking and organized them into 10 topics below. You’ll find the original captions and sources below the images, minus the footnotes. Click on images to enlarge them.

1) It’s getting hotter

Virtually every part of the country has gotten warmer in recent decades, but compare Alaska to the Southeast region.

US Temperature Change

Caption: The colors on the map show temperature changes over the past 22 years (1991-2012) compared to the 1901-1960 average, and compared to the 1951-1980 average for Alaska and Hawai‘i. The bars on the graphs show the average temperature changes by decade for 1901-2012 (relative to the 1901-1960 average) for each region. The far right bar in each graph (2000s decade) includes 2011 and 2012. The period from 2001 to 2012 was warmer than any previous decade in every region. (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).

2) Precipitation trends differ by region

Looking back at the 1991-2012 period, some parts of the country have been relatively wet, but Arizona has been especially dry. Very heavy precipitation events have been on the rise.

Precipitation changesCaption: The colors on the map show annual total precipitation changes for 1991-2012 compared to the 1901-1960 average, and show wetter conditions in most areas. The bars on the graphs show average precipitation differences by decade for 1901-2012 (relative to the 1901-1960 average) for each region. The far right bar in each graph is for 2001-2012. (Figure source: adapted from Peterson et al. 2013).

Heavy precip heavy precipCaption: One measure of heavy precipitation events is a two-day precipitation total that is exceeded on average only once in a 5-year period, also known as the once-in-five-year event. As this extreme precipitation index for 1901-2012 shows, the occurrence of such events has become much more common in recent decades. Changes are compared to the period 1901-1960, and do not include Alaska or Hawai‘i. (Figure source: adapted from Kunkel et al. 2013).

3) Season variations in precipitation projections

Looking ahead, models predict that some parts of the nation will be wetter overall, and others will be drier. There are also strong seasonal differences.

US Precipitation

Caption: Projected change in seasonal precipitation for 2071-2099 (compared to 1970-1999) under an emissions scenario that assumes continued increases in emissions (A2). Hatched areas indicate that the projected changes are significant and consistent among models. White areas indicate that the changes are not projected to be larger than could be expected from natural variability. In general, the northern part of the U.S. is projected to see more winter and spring precipitation, while the southwestern U.S. is projected to experience less precipitation in the spring. (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).

4) Drought becoming more common in West

The fraction of the West experiencing summer drought has been trending upward.

DroughtCaption: The area of the western U.S. in moderately to extremely dry conditions during summer (June-July-August) varies greatly from year to year but shows a long-term increasing trend from 1900 to 2012. (Data from NOAA NCDC State of the Climate Drought analysis).

5) Bleak outlook for West’s snowpack

Even in places that are expected to get wetter overall, precipitation may be more likely to fall as rain than snow, causing major declines in the West’s vital snowpack.

Snow water equivalent

Caption: Snow water equivalent (SWE) refers to the amount of water held in a volume of snow, which depends on the density of the snow and other factors. Figure shows projected snow water equivalent for the Southwest, as a percentage of 1971-2000, assuming continued increases in global emissions (A2 scenario). The size of bars is in proportion to the amount of snow each state contributes to the regional total; thus, the bars for Arizona are much smaller than those for Colorado, which contributes the most to region-wide snowpack. Declines in peak SWE are strongly correlated with early timing of runoff and decreases in total runoff. For watersheds that depend on snowpack to provide the majority of the annual runoff, such as in the Sierra Nevada and in the Upper Colorado and Upper Rio Grande River Basins, lower SWE generally translates to reduced reservoir water storage. (Data from Scripps Institution of Oceanography).

6) Less runoff and greater water stress

Melting snowpack accounts for the bulk of water in many Western rivers. Higher evaporation rates and greater water use by plants will contribute to steep declines in runoff and greater risks to the water supply

RunoffCaption: These projections, assuming continued increases in heat-trapping gas emissions (A2 scenario; Ch. 2: Our Changing Climate), illustrate: a) major losses in the water content of the snowpack that fills western rivers (snow water equivalent, or SWE); b) significant reductions in runoff in California, Arizona, and the central Rocky Mountains; and c) reductions in soil moisture across the Southwest. The changes shown are for mid-century (2041-2070) as percentage changes from 1971- 2000 conditions (Figure source: Cayan et al. 2013).

StreamflowCaption: Annual and seasonal streamflow projections based on the B1 (with substantial emissions reductions), A1B (with gradual reductions from current emission trends beginning around mid-century), and A2 (with continuation of current rising emissions trends) CMIP3 scenarios for eight river basins in the western United States. The panels show percentage changes in average runoff, with projected increases above the zero line and decreases below. Projections are for annual, cool, and warm seasons, for three future decades (2020s, 2050s, and 2070s) relative to the 1990s. (Source: U.S. Department of the Interior – Bureau of Reclamation 2011; Data provided by L. Brekke, S. Gangopadhyay, and T. Pruitt)

Water riskCaption: Climate change is projected to reduce water supplies in some parts of the country. This is true in areas where precipitation is projected to decline, and even in some areas where precipitation is expected to increase. Compared to 10% of counties today, by 2050, 32% of counties will be at high or extreme risk of water shortages. Numbers of counties are in parentheses in key. Projections assume continued increases in greenhouse gas emissions through 2050 and a slow decline thereafter (A1B scenario). (Figure source: Reprinted with permission from Roy et al. 2012. Copyright American Chemical Society).

7) Altered timing of spring snowmelt

Climate change will cause the annual surge of snowmelt to occur earlier in the year, which will force changes in how dams and irrigation are managed. Altered timing of the snowmelt will also pose challenges for aquatic species and ecosystems.

Northwest runoffCaption (Left): Projected increased winter flows and decreased summer flows in many Northwest rivers will cause widespread impacts. Mixed rain-snow watersheds, such as the Yakima River basin, an important agricultural area in eastern Washington, will see increased winter flows, earlier spring peak flows, and decreased summer flows in a warming climate. Changes in average monthly streamflow by the 2020s, 2040s, and 2080s (as compared to the period 1916 to 2006) indicate that the Yakima River basin could change from a snow-dominant to a rain-dominant basin by the 2080s under the A1B emissions scenario (with eventual reductions from current rising emissions trends). (Figure source: adapted from Elsner et al. 2010).

Caption (Right): Natural surface water availability during the already dry late summer period is projected to decrease across most of the Northwest. The map shows projected changes in local runoff (shading) and streamflow (colored circles) for the 2040s (compared to the period 1915 to 2006) under the same scenario as the left figure (A1B). Streamflow reductions such as these would stress freshwater fish species (for instance, endangered salmon and bull trout) and necessitate increasing tradeoffs among conflicting uses of summer water. Watersheds with significant groundwater contributions to summer streamflow may be less responsive to climate change than indicated here.

8) Greater wildfire activity expected

Higher temperatures and a thinner snowpack would be enough to increase wildfire risks, but climate change is also contributing to the spread of insects and diseases in Western forests and woodlands.

Northwest Forest
Caption: (Top) Insects and fire have cumulatively affected large areas of the Northwest and are projected to be the dominant drivers of forest change in the near future. Map shows areas recently burned (1984 to 2008) or affected by insects or disease (1997 to 2008). (Middle) Map indicates the increases in area burned that would result from the regional temperature and precipitation changes associated with a 2.2°F global warming across areas that share broad climatic and vegetation characteristics.101 Local impacts will vary greatly within these broad areas with sensitivity of fuels to climate. (Bottom) Projected changes in the probability of climatic suitability for mountain pine beetles for the period 2001 to 2030 (relative to 1961 to 1990), where brown indicates areas where pine beetles are projected to increase in the future and green indicates areas where pine beetles are expected to decrease in the future. Changes in probability of survival are based on climate-dependent factors important in beetle population success, including cold tolerance,102 spring precipitation, and seasonal heat accumulation.

9) Heat could hurt tourism

If it gets too hot, some parts of the country may become unappealing for tourists, which could have major economic implications.


Caption: Tourism is often climate-dependent as well as seasonally dependent. Increasing heat and humidity – projected for summers in the Midwest, Southeast, and parts of the Southwest by mid-century (compared to the period 1961-1990) – is likely to create unfavorable conditions for summertime outdoor recreation and tourism activity. The figures illustrate projected changes in climatic attractiveness (based on maximum daily temperature and minimum daily relative hu­midity, average daily temperature and relative humidity, precipitation, sunshine, and wind speed) in July for much of North America. In the coming century, the distribution of these conditions is projected to shift from acceptable to unfavorable across most of the southern Midwest and a por­tion of the Southeast, and from very good or good to acceptable conditions in northern portions of the Midwest, under a high emissions scenario (A2a). (Figure source: Nicholls et al. 2005).

10)  Carbon emissions are climbing

The report focuses on climate change impacts, but it includes a couple of good graphics showing the rise in carbon dioxide emissions. U.S. output of greenhouse gases have increased primarily due to our expanding population and growing affluence.CO2Caption: Air bubbles trapped in an Antarctic ice core extending back 800,000 years document the atmosphere’s changing carbon dioxide concentration. Over long periods, natural factors have caused atmospheric CO2 concentrations to vary between about 170 to 300 parts per million (ppm). As a result of human activities since the Industrial Revolution, CO2 levels have increased to 400 ppm, higher than any time in at least the last one million years. By 2100, additional emissions from human activities are projected to increase CO2 levels to 420 ppm under a very low scenario, which would require immediate and sharp emissions reductions (RCP 2.6), and 935 ppm under a higher scenario, which assumes continued increases in emissions (RCP 8.5). This figure shows the historical composite CO2 record based on measurements from the EPICA (European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica) Dome C and Dronning Maud Land sites and from the Vostok station. Data from Lüthi et al. 2008 (664-800 thousand years [kyr] ago, Dome C site); Siegenthaler et al. 2005 (393-664 kyr ago, Dronning Maud Land); Pépin 2001, Petit et al. 1999, and Raynaud 2005 (22-393 kyr ago, Vostok); Monnin et al. 2001 (0-22 kyr ago, Dome C); and Meinshausen et al. 2011 (future projections from RCP 2.6 and 8.5).

driversCaption: This graph depicts the changes in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions over time as a function of five driving forces: 1) the amount of CO2 produced per unit of energy (CO2 intensity); 2) the amount of energy used per unit of gross domestic product (energy intensity); 3) structural changes in the economy; 4) per capita income; and 5) population. Although CO2 intensity and especially energy intensity have decreased significantly and the structure of the U.S. economy has changed, total CO2 emissions have continued to rise as a result of the growth in both population and per capita income. (Baldwin and Sue Wing, 2013).

EcoWest’s mission is to analyze, visualize, and share data on environmental trends in the North American West. Please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.

3, 2, 1 . . . EcoWest is launching!

The American West is evolving faster than ever. Population growth is increasing pressure on scarce resources. Climate change is compounding traditional environmental threats. Demographic trends are reshaping the region’s complexion.

Such rapid, profound changes make it vital to analyze and share data on the West. Browse through any newspaper in the region and you’ll see detailed dashboards depicting stock prices, batting averages, and weather forecasts. But what about the state of the West itself? Is the environment improving or declining? What’s happening with droughts, floods, and fires? Which species are in trouble? Where is our energy economy heading?

We’ve created EcoWest to answer these questions, and many others.

Visualizing environmental trends

EcoWest’s mission is to creatively communicate what the latest research, monitoring, and polling is revealing about how the West is changing. In essence, we’re trying to tell the story of the region’s environment through the medium of PowerPoint slides, graphics, charts, maps, dashboards, and other data visualizations.

Although EcoWest.org has been live for some time now, it’s been in beta mode as we’ve been testing features, wrapping up initial research, and populating the site. As of now, we’re officially launched!

So how does this thing work?

Since 2010, we’ve been gathering, sorting, sifting, slicing, and dicing reams of data on environmental trends. We’ve organized our research and conclusions into a half-dozen narrated PowerPoint presentations that cover biodiversity, climate change, land use, politics, water, and wildfires in the West. On each of these main pages, you can download the slide deck, notes, sources, and underlying data, as well as watch a video of the presentation. Sub-pages, such as this one on wildfire trends, are where you’ll find dashboards that allow you to interact with the data and download images.

Starting now, we’ll be posting new content a couple times a week, culling relevant material from the news cycle and commenting on new research. We’ll be updating the EcoWest material as new data becomes available and plan to grow the site in the years ahead.

What have you concluded from all this research?

A good place to start is our executive summary deck, which draws from the half-dozen PowerPoint presentations and synthesizes the findings of the research. Links to download the presentation are at the bottom of this post.

It requires both chutzpah and simplification to summarize a sprawling region that is defined by the very diversity of its ecology, climate, and people. But let me be so bold as to encapsulate the findings into a half-dozen points:

1)     The human footprint in the West is surprisingly large

Among the most striking aspects of the American West are its unpopulated expanses and the prevalence of public land. But humanity’s imprint is already deep and indelible in most of the region. Sure, population growth is a big driver, but it’s actually agriculture that creates a bigger footprint than cities, suburbs, and other residential development. Even remote public lands may be crisscrossed by highways or carved up by industrial activities that are permitted under the multiple-use doctrine. The West is still home to some of the wildest and least disturbed landscapes on the continent, but only some of these relatively pristine areas are strictly protected as wilderness, national parks, or other preserves.

human footprint

2)     Growth and climate change are compounding the water crisis

For more than a century, smart people have been warning about the perils of settling an unforgiving land with an inherently capricious water supply. Even without considering climate change, the West would be facing a water crisis pitting rising demands against limited resources. As global warming shrinks the vital snowpack and reduces the flow in some key river basins, conflicts over water are bound to increase, but so are transfers of water rights. With farms still consuming the vast majority of the region’s water and cities searching for new supplies, we’ll be seeing more and more water changing hands. Municipal water demand is certainly increasing, but it’s still less than what the energy sector withdraws from streams, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. It not only takes gobs of water to power our energy economy; it also takes a ton of energy to pump, move, clean, and deliver water.

water use

3)     Species were in trouble even without climate change

The West is home to some amazing wildlife success stories. Game species that were almost wiped out during the first waves of settlement, such as deer, elk, and pronghorn, have bounced back, sometimes to the point of overpopulation. Endangered species, such as California condors and black-footed ferrets, have been pulled back from the brink. Yet the number of imperiled plants and animals continues to grow, despite political meddling with the Endangered Species Act. In the West and elsewhere, freshwater species are in especially dire straits. Few plants and animals are now threatened by overhunting and collecting, but habitat loss and invasive species remain chronic problems. Climate change, which is already transforming entire ecosystems, could pose an existential threat to some species by eliminating their habitat.

species threats

4)     Wildfires are growing larger and will only get worse

Climate change and the legacy of misguided fire suppression will continue to make the West’s wildfire season longer, costlier, and more destructive. Not all fires are bad, and not all acres burned are “destroyed,” as the media often reports. But while fire is an essential part of most Western forests, woodlands, and grasslands, many ecosystems are ecologically out of whack. The government has been treating an increasing number of acres with mechanical thinning and prescribed burns, but it’s just a drop in the bucket. As temperatures keep increasing and the snowpack melts earlier in the year, the wildfire season is expected to lengthen and worsen. At the same time, more and more Westerners are living in the wildland-urban interface, where homes and businesses are especially vulnerable to wildfires.


5)     Westerners want a vibrant economy and a healthy environment

It’s no surprise that the environment tends to rank low on the public’s agenda during an economic downturn. But Americans—and Westerners in particular—often support the environmental movement’s goals of reducing pollution, promoting renewable energy, and protecting public lands. To be sure, the old environment-versus-economy dichotomy is still part of our political rhetoric, but if you drill down into polling results, especially in the West, you’ll find that many people reject that as a false choice and see a vibrant economy as dependent on a healthy environment. Even so, recent polls have shown an upward trend in hostility toward environmental groups.


6)     Reason for hope: we’re getting cleaner and more efficient

Although millions of Westerners remain exposed to toxic air pollution, it’s undeniable that the air quality in most places is better than it was decades ago. Just as the Clean Air Act has cleansed the skies of many hazardous materials, the Clean Water Act has also led to some dramatic improvements in our water quality. Overall, we’re becoming more efficient in our water and energy use, thanks to new technologies and a stronger conservation ethic. While fossil fuels continue to dominate our energy economy, wind power is making huge strides and becoming competitive with power plants burning natural gas, while solar panels are popping up on the roofs of homes and businesses across the region.

air quality
In short, the West is at risk and many of the trends are troubling, but even this cynical native New Yorker can find some glimmers of optimism amid the gloom and doom.

Who is behind this project?

EcoWest is a product of California Environmental Associates, the environmental consulting firm where I’m communications director, and it’s supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s Western Conservation subprogram, which seeks to “protect and restore biologically important and iconic areas of the North American West in ways that help create sustainable communities and build broader and more effective conservation constituencies.”

We’ve been working as consultants to the Packard Foundation since 2010, writing independent evaluations of their grantmaking and monitoring trends in Western conservation. Although this site is supported by the Packard Foundation, they do not exert editorial control over the content, and the opinions expressed on this site are not necessarily shared by the Foundation or its grantees.

While developing EcoWest, we’ve been consulting with a half-dozen advisors who have helped us interpret the data, explain the limitations, identify emerging threats, and look across the issues to highlight priorities for Western conservation.

I also want to give a shout out to my fabulous colleagues at California Environmental Associates who have assisted with the project.

How can I stay connected to EcoWest?

Pick your poison! We broadcast our content on a variety of channels, so please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.

I’d also like to encourage you to add your own voice to the conservation conversation by commenting on posts, and I invite you to share any feedback on the site by contacting me directly.

I have a ton of great content that I’m excited to share and I hope you’ll join me on the journey ahead.


Download Slides: EcoWest Executive SummaryDownload Slides: EcoWest Executive Summary (38.52 MB pptx)
Download Slides (Narrated): EcoWest Executive SummaryDownload Slides (Narrated): EcoWest Executive Summary (52.23 MB pptx)
Download PDF: EcoWest Executive SummaryDownload PDF: EcoWest Executive Summary (10.22 MB pdf)
Download PDF with Notes: EcoWest Executive SummaryDownload PDF with Notes: EcoWest Executive Summary (12.35 MB pdf)

2012 was hottest year on record for U.S.

No doubt about it: 2012 was toasty. Today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that 2012 was not only the warmest on record for the lower 48 since 1895 but also the second worst on a measure known as the Climate Extremes Index, which includes factors such as temperature anomalies, drought patterns, and the strength of tropical storms (you can create your own visualizations of the index here).

I’ve put together some of the summary graphics from the report and related media coverage in this slide deck.

2012 was hottest year on record in U.S. from EcoWest on Vimeo.

It was definitely an abnormal weather year for the American West (when was the last year that felt “normal”!?). Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico all had their hottest years on record, while 2012 ranked second warmest for Colorado and Nevada. The story for precipitation was more varied, with many inland states suffering a deep drought as Oregon and Washington experienced some of their wettest years since the late 19th century.

2012 precipitation state rankings
2012 statewide rankings for precipitation. Source: National Climatic Data Center

Nationwide, the extent of snow cover was the third smallest since 1966/1967. In the West, areas outside of the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest had a meager snowpack by April 1, 2012.

April 1 2012 snowpack
Snowpack on April 1, 2012. Source: National Climatic Data Center

It’ll be interesting to see if this stark summary of extreme weather in the United States gains any traction in the national conversation. This report is currently the top story on the websites of the New York Times and Washington Post.

For more on the effects of rising temperatures in the American West, check out our climate deck.


Download slides: 2012 State of the ClimateDownload slides: 2012 State of the Climate (6.42 MB pptx)
Download notes: 2012 State of the ClimateDownload notes: 2012 State of the Climate (922.48 kB pdf)

EcoWest’s mission is to analyze, visualize, and share data on environmental trends in the North American West. Please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.