Research, Science & environment

State taps UC researchers for expertise on climate change impacts

By Robert Sanders

The California Natural Resources Agency and the California Energy Commission (CEC) yesterday (Tuesday, July 31) released more than 30 reports by researchers at the University of California — 15 of them from UC Berkeley — and other academic institutions that detail the state’s vulnerabilities to climate change and pinpoint the economic and policy hurdles that need to be overcome to address them.

Southern California wildfire.

Fires burn across the hillside near homes in Portola Hills, Calif.

In a press announcement accompanying the release of the studies, Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird noted that “significant increases in wildfires, floods, severe storms, drought and heat waves are clear evidence that climate change is happening now. California is stepping up to lead the way in preparing for — and adapting to — this change. These reports use cutting-edge science to provide an analytical roadmap, pointing the way for taking concrete steps to protect our natural resources and all Californians.”

Laird and others appeared yesterday at a press conference in Sacramento, where Robert B. Weisenmiller, chair of the California Energy Commission, called the reports “historic” and praised the scientists who contributed.

“We scientists know that climate change is and will be significantly affecting the state’s energy supply and demand system,” he said. “The research in these assessments furthers our understanding of the impacts …. The challenges are enormous, but certainly this state has the capability to rise to those challenges, and with these types of studies we are going to be prepared. We will use these in the energy commission planning … to maintain a reliable grid, but also use this as a way of planning our research.”

Laird and Weisenmiller were joined at the press conference by Chief Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), who painted a grim picture of the state’s fire future. Of the 20 worst fires in California history, 11 have occurred since 2002, he said. The fire season in some areas has increased by an average of two months, and a few areas in Southern California now have a year-round fire season.

“Studies like those being released today are key in helping us move forward to prepare California” to deal with these large and damaging fires, said Pimlott.

State’s fire season longer, fires more intense

UC Berkeley fire expert Max Moritz, who contributed a paper about increased vulnerability to wildland fires in the state, has been warning of increasing fire danger for years.

“Our results reveal that California should prepare — regardless of the future we may face climatically — for quite different fire activity levels in the future,” said Moritz, a professor of Environmental Science, Policy and Management. “Though our models continue to improve, we still don’t know which future climate scenario will actually emerge. The challenge is to learn to ‘coexist’ with this natural hazard and move toward fire-resilient ecosystems and fire-resistant urban development.”

Speaking for the more than 120 scientists in 26 teams who contributed to the studies, Susanne Moser, a Social Science Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, said that the report “spells out our new understanding of what climate change might mean to California. We are trying to inform the public, we are trying to inform the decision makers, with valuable information that they can use in … planning.”

The reports represent the third assessment commissioned by the California Climate Change Center since 2006, following up on discussions and topics presented at the Governor’s Conference on Extreme Climate Risks and California’s Future held last December in San Francisco. The new studies will provide a foundation for the 2012 Climate Adaptation Strategy, which is expected to be completed in December 2012.

David Ackerly, who co-authored three of the papers released yesterday, provided a new vegetation map that will allow planners to see how the Bay Area will likely change in the future.

“The big result that comes out of the models — and we have to remember that they are models — is a very wide expansion of chaparral and the loss of the cooler oak woodlands. And as climate change becomes more extreme, the Bay Area looks more and more like Santa Barbara or areas farther south, and the vegetation begins to look like Southern California, which is mostly scrublands,” said Ackerly, a professor of integrative biology. “That could take a hundred years or more, but the short-term result is that the dead trees become a fire danger and alien weeds invade.”

The short-term impacts are the most uncertain, he said, though UC Berkeley scientists hope to fill in these gaps through a broad research effort, the Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology .

“We hope to answer the question, ‘How fast can these changes really occur?’” he said.

Ackerly said that through his reports, which synthesized previous and ongoing research, he particularly wanted to link the expected decline of biodiversity throughout the state with a more visible impact on the ecosystem services people take for granted. The predicted march of desert northward into the San Joaquin Valley will make some areas unsuitable for agriculture, for example, while warmer winters may mean that plums and peaches will not get the winter chill they need to produce fruit.

“This is not merely nature for nature’s sake; nature and the services we expect from nature are all connected,” he said.

Gov. Jerry Brown is listening to these reports, according to Ken Alex, Brown’s senior policy advisor and director of the Office of Planning and Research, who also spoke at the press conference.

“Here in California, we do make policy decisions based on the science,” he said. “Gov. Brown actually reads the science, and he takes it very seriously, and I know that at a very deeply personal level, he wants to do something about climate change and wants to see California take the leadership role.”

The 26 teams submitting reports were led by researchers from around the state, including 15 from UC Berkeley, 19 from other UC campuses and two from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. For highlights from the reports, link to the CEC’s press release ( PDF ). To download the full reports, link to CEC’s website .

“The incredible breadth of studies, as well as the depth of their analyses, reveals just how much the University of California has to offer in preparing us all to adapt to a changing climate,” Moritz added. “Hopefully, it also demonstrates how important it is to grow this scientific capacity within our public university system.”