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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).

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Plotting “dead pool” and other watersheds for Lake Powell and Lake Mead

The elevations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, two critical reservoirs on the Colorado River, are like the Dow and S&P 500 for water in the Southwest. These closely watched metrics serve as simple barometers and summaries of how things are going in a fiendishly complex system, be it the U.S. economy or a watershed spread across a quarter-million square miles that provides drinking water for nearly 40 million people.

“Water buffaloes,” the professionals who manage the West’s most precious resource, have been sounding bearish in recent days about Powell and Mead, the nation’s two largest reservoirs by capacity. The past 14 years have been the driest for the Colorado River in more than a century of record keeping. On Friday, federal officials announced they will cut releases from Powell from 8.23 million acre-feet to 7.48 million acre-feet, which would be lowest release since the reservoir was filling in the 1960s.

To track water storage in Powell and Mead, I’ve created a dashboard that plots the lake levels and some important benchmarks. Below are some images from the visualization (click to enlarge). There’s also a PowerPoint presentation you can download at the bottom of the post.

Lake Powell elevation graphic Lake Mead elevation graphic

Elevation benchmarks

The Powell chart plots the daily elevation and the Mead chart illustrates the July 1 level; in the former, you can see the annual ebb and flow. I used two different time scales because that’s how I found the data on the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s websites (separate offices manage Powell and Mead).

Capacity shows the elevation when the reservoirs are full. For Powell, raising the spillway gates can slightly increase capacity, but flooding in 1983 did nearly overtop Glen Canyon Dam. When a reservoir is at dead pool, the water level is so low that it cannot drain by gravity through the dam’s outlet works. Hydropower can only be generated when the reservoir is above the minimum power pool. For Mead, which supplies the Las Vegas metro area, the elevation of the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s lower intake is shown.

Our dashboard uses lake elevation, but in our PowerPoint deck we also have some slides showing changes in volume. Each metric tells us different things about the status of the reservoirs, but elevation is easier to visualize. Below is a photo I took last April of Powell’s so-called bathtub ring, which is even more exposed today.

Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam
Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam, April 2012. Photo by Mitch Tobin.

Satellite imagery shows Powell’s decline

Another way to track the status of these reservoirs is by taking repeat photographs, either on Earth or from space, of the same location. Below are two views of Lake Powell, the first showing 2002 vs. 2003, and the second comparing 2012 vs. 2013, based on NASA satellite imagery.

Lake Powell drought photograph

Lake Powell satellite image drought

The PowerPoint deck that you can download below contains a time series of satellite images of Powell from 1999 to 2013. The contrast between 2012 and 2013 illustrates why federal officials are taking action and cutting releases from the reservoir.

Reservoir levels projected to fall

Looking ahead, federal water managers project that Mead will drop another eight feet in 2014 due to reduced releases from Powell. Below is a graphic from Reclamation that shows Powell is likely to keep falling as well.

Lake Powell elevation projection

Basin susceptible to megadroughts

The outlook for precipitation in the basin over the next few years is uncertain, but one thing we know for sure is that the Colorado River is vulnerable to megadroughts, the likes of which we haven’t seen in modern times. The graphic below, from the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, shows the annual flow of the Colorado River over the past 1,200 years. Scientists used tree rings to estimate the river’s volume before the instrumental record, which is shown as a red line. The arrows point out that the basin has been periodically hit with megadroughts that were worse than the one we’ve been experiencing since 2000.
Colorado River drought tree ring record

Climate change expected to shrink Colorado’s flow

Even without considering climate change, the Colorado River would face a challenging future because the demand for its limited–and capricious–supply is increasing along with the Southwest’s population. But scientists project that even less water will flow down the river in the decades to come due to rising temperatures and altered precipitation patterns. The graphic below, from Reclamation’s recent Basin Study, shows that demand is projected to exceed supply on the river (see our earlier post for more details).

Colorado River historical and projected water use and supply

Data sources

The Bureau of Reclamation provides detailed data on Lake Powell and Lake Mead. I pulled the benchmark levels from this Reclamation presentation, specifically page 15.

If you’re keeping score at home, the capacity of elevation of Powell is listed as 3,700 feet, but during floods the reservoir’s elevation can go slightly above this level by raising the spillway gates. In 1983, Powell reached an all-time high elevation of 3,708.34 feet.

The decision to cut releases from Powell was covered by The Arizona Republic,  National Public Radio, and The Salt Lake Tribune, among others.


Download Slides: Lake Powell and Lake MeadDownload Slides: Lake Powell and Lake Mead (10.23 MB pptx)
Download Notes: Lake Powell and Lake MeadDownload Notes: Lake Powell and Lake Mead (3.13 MB pdf)

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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.

A dashboard for monitoring drought

Aside from the Pacific Northwest, nearly all of the land west of the 100th Meridian is currently drier than normal. The drought has been especially severe in the nation’s midsection, where some areas are suffering through “exceptional” conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

To track drought severity, I’ve created a dashboard on this page that shows what percentage of the contiguous United States and the 11 Western states were in various categories of drought. The dashboard allows you to export images like the one below (click to enlarge).

Drought monitor dashboard

The graphics visualize data back to 2000 and show that the current drought in the West is beginning to rival the brutal dry spell that gripped the region in the early 2000s. Just a couple of years ago, very few areas in the West were abnormally dry, but that sure changed in a hurry. Below is the latest map of drought conditions in the region.

West drought monitor

Although drought is a natural part of the Western climate, the shortage of precipitation has major implications for the region’s water supply, the severity of its upcoming wildfire season, and the health of ecosystems already confronting a broad spectrum of threats.

Data sources

The dashboard is based on the U.S. Drought Monitor, which provides historical data on this page. There are other ways to measure drought, such as the Palmer Index. In a future post, I’ll be sharing some slides that explain the differences in the various measures.

National Public Radio has put together an animated series of maps that show how drought conditions have changed over the past few years.

It’s also worth checking out how the The New York Times has mapped the drought’s footprint since 1896.

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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.