2014 National Climate Assessment key findings, Part 1: Overview and Our Changing Climate


The 2014 National Climate Assessment provides the most comprehensive current analysis of the observed and projected consequences for the U.S. of global climate disruption. Here, extracted from the 30 chapters in the final report, we look at the key findings and messages of Chapters 1 (Overview) and 2 (Our Changing Climate). 

The following information is extracted from the final draft of the 2014 National Climate Assessment (full report). Download the full report or individual chapters at http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/downloads. This major report was prepared by several hundred scientific and technical experts under the oversight of the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee and was released by the U.S. government on May 6. A complete listing of key findings and messages in the report is available here in PDF format.

Also see:

2014 National Climate Assessment key findings, Part 2: Sectors

2014 National Climate Assessment key findings, Part 3: Regions

2014 National Climate Assessment key findings, Part 4: Response Strategies



Chapter 1. Overview

These findings distill important results that arise from this National Climate Assessment. They do not represent a full summary of all of the chapters’ findings, but rather a synthesis of particularly noteworthy conclusions.

1. Global climate is changing and this is apparent across the United States in a wide range of observations. The global warming of the past 50 years is primarily due to human activities, predominantly the burning of fossil fuels.

Many independent lines of evidence confirm that human activities are affecting climate in unprecedented ways. U.S. average temperature has increased by 1.3°F to 1.9°F since record keeping began in 1895; most of this increase has occurred since about 1970. The most recent decade was the warmest on record. Because human-induced warming is superimposed on a naturally varying climate, rising temperatures are not evenly distributed across the country or over time.

2. Some extreme weather and climate events have increased in recent decades, and new and stronger evidence confirms that some of these increases are related to human activities.

Changes in extreme weather events are the primary way that most people experience climate change. Human-induced climate change has already increased the number and strength of some of these extreme events. Over the last 50 years, much of the United States has seen an increase in prolonged periods of excessively high temperatures, more heavy downpours, and in some regions, more severe droughts.

3. Human-induced climate change is projected to continue, and it will accelerate significantly if global emissions of heat-trapping gases continue to increase.

Heat-trapping gases already in the atmosphere have committed us to a hotter future with more climate-related impacts over the next few decades. The magnitude of climate change beyond the next few decades depends primarily on the amount of heat-trapping gases that human activities emit globally, now and in the future.

4. Impacts related to climate change are already evident in many sectors and are expected to become increasingly disruptive across the nation throughout this century and beyond.

Climate change is already affecting societies and the natural world. Climate change interacts with other environmental and societal factors in ways that can either moderate or intensify these impacts. The types and magnitudes of impacts vary across the nation and through time. Children, the elderly, the sick, and the poor are especially vulnerable. There is mounting evidence that harm to the nation will increase substantially in the future unless global emissions of heat-trapping gases are greatly reduced.

5. Climate change threatens human health and well-being in many ways, including through more extreme weather events and wildfire, decreased air quality, and diseases transmitted by insects, food, and water.

Climate change is increasing the risks of heat stress, respiratory stress from poor air quality, and the spread of waterborne diseases. Extreme weather events often lead to fatalities and a variety of health impacts on vulnerable populations, including impacts on mental health, such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Large-scale changes in the environment due to climate change and extreme weather events are increasing the risk of the emergence or reemergence of health threats that are currently uncommon in the United States, such as dengue fever.

6. Infrastructure is being damaged by sea level rise, heavy downpours, and extreme heat; damages are projected to increase with continued climate change.

Sea level rise, storm surge, and heavy downpours, in combination with the pattern of continued development in coastal areas, are increasing damage to U.S. infrastructure including roads, buildings, and industrial facilities, and are also increasing risks to ports and coastal military installations. Flooding along rivers, lakes, and in cities following heavy downpours, prolonged rains, and rapid melting of snowpack is exceeding the limits of flood protection infrastructure designed for historical conditions. Extreme heat is damaging transportation infrastructure such as roads, rail lines, and airport runways.

7. Water quality and water supply reliability are jeopardized by climate change in a variety of ways that affect ecosystems and livelihoods.

Surface and groundwater supplies in some regions are already stressed by increasing demand for water as well as declining runoff and groundwater recharge. In some regions, particularly the southern part of the country and the Caribbean and Pacific Islands, climate change is increasing the likelihood of water shortages and competition for water among its many uses. Water quality is diminishing in many areas, particularly due to increasing sediment and contaminant concentrations after heavy downpours.

8. Climate disruptions to agriculture have been increasing and are projected to become more severe over this century.

Some areas are already experiencing climate-related disruptions, particularly due to extreme weather events. While some U.S. regions and some types of agricultural production will be relatively resilient to climate change over the next 25 years or so, others will increasingly suffer from stresses due to extreme heat, drought, disease, and heavy downpours. From mid-century on, climate change is projected to have more negative impacts on crops and livestock across the country – a trend that could diminish the security of our food supply.

9. Climate change poses particular threats to Indigenous Peoples’ health, well-being, and ways of life.

Chronic stresses such as extreme poverty are being exacerbated by climate change impacts such as reduced access to traditional foods, decreased water quality, and increasing exposure to health and safety hazards. In parts of Alaska, Louisiana, the Pacific Islands, and other coastal locations, climate change impacts (through erosion and inundation) are so severe that some communities are already relocating from historical homelands to which their traditions and cultural identities are tied. Particularly in Alaska, the rapid pace of temperature rise, ice and snow melt, and permafrost thaw are significantly affecting critical infrastructure and traditional livelihoods.

10. Ecosystems and the benefits they provide to society are being affected by climate change. The capacity of ecosystems to buffer the impacts of extreme events like fires, floods, and severe storms is being overwhelmed.

Climate change impacts on biodiversity are already being observed in alteration of the timing of critical biological events such as spring bud burst and substantial range shifts of many species. In the longer term, there is an increased risk of species extinction. These changes have social, cultural, and economic effects. Events such as droughts, floods, wildfires, and pest outbreaks associated with climate change (for example, bark beetles in the West) are already disrupting ecosystems. These changes limit the capacity of ecosystems, such as forests, barrier beaches, and wetlands, to continue to play important roles in reducing the impacts of these extreme events on infrastructure, human communities, and other valued resources.

11. Ocean waters are becoming warmer and more acidic, broadly affecting ocean circulation, chemistry, ecosystems, and marine life.

More acidic waters inhibit the formation of shells, skeletons, and coral reefs. Warmer waters harm coral reefs and alter the distribution, abundance, and productivity of many marine species. The rising temperature and changing chemistry of ocean water combine with other stresses, such as overfishing and coastal and marine pollution, to alter marine-based food production and harm fishing communities.

12. Planning for adaptation (to address and prepare for impacts) and mitigation (to reduce future climate change, for example by cutting emissions) is becoming more widespread, but current implementation efforts are insufficient to avoid increasingly negative social, environmental, and economic consequences.

Actions to reduce emissions, increase carbon uptake, adapt to a changing climate, and increase resilience to impacts that are unavoidable can improve public health, economic development, ecosystem protection, and quality of life.

Chapter 2. Our Changing Climate

Key Messages

1. Global climate is changing and this change is apparent across a wide range of observations. The global warming of the past 50 years is primarily due to human activities.

2. Global climate is projected to continue to change over this century and beyond. The magnitude of climate change beyond the next few decades depends primarily on the amount of heat-trapping gases emitted globally, and how sensitive the Earth’s climate is to those emissions.

3. U.S. average temperature has increased by 1.3°F to 1.9°F since record keeping began in 1895; most of this increase has occurred since about 1970. The most recent decade was the nation’s warmest on record. Temperatures in the United States are expected to continue to rise. Because human-induced warming is superimposed on a naturally varying climate, the temperature rise has not been, and will not be, uniform or smooth across the country or over time.

4. The length of the frost-free season (and the corresponding growing season) has been increasing nationally since the 1980s, with the largest increases occurring in the western United States, affecting ecosystems and agriculture. Across the United States, the growing season is projected to continue to lengthen.

5. Average U.S. precipitation has increased since 1900, but some areas have had increases greater than the national average, and some areas have had decreases. More winter and spring precipitation is projected for the northern United States, and less for the Southwest, over this century.

6. Heavy downpours are increasing nationally, especially over the last three to five decades. Largest increases are in the Midwest and Northeast. Increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events are projected for all U.S. regions.

7. There have been changes in some types of extreme weather events over the last several decades. Heat waves have become more frequent and intense, especially in the West. Cold waves have become less frequent and intense across the nation. There have been regional trends in floods and droughts. Droughts in the Southwest and heat waves everywhere are projected to become more intense, and cold waves less intense everywhere.

8. The intensity, frequency, and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes, as well as the frequency of the strongest (Category 4 and 5) hurricanes, have all increased since the early 1980s. The relative contributions of human and natural causes to these increases are still uncertain. Hurricane-associated storm intensity and rainfall rates are projected to increase as the climate continues to warm.

9. Winter storms have increased in frequency and intensity since the 1950s, and their tracks have shifted northward over the United States. Other trends in severe storms, including the intensity and frequency of tornadoes, hail, and damaging thunderstorm winds, are uncertain and are being studied intensively.

10. Global sea level has risen by about 8 inches since reliable record keeping began in 1880. It is projected to rise another 1 to 4 feet by 2100.

11. Rising temperatures are reducing ice volume and surface extent on land, lakes, and sea. This loss of ice is expected to continue. The Arctic Ocean is expected to become essentially ice free in summer before mid-century.

12. The oceans are currently absorbing about a quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere annually and are becoming more acidic as a result, leading to concerns about intensifying impacts on marine ecosystems.

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Thanks to Nick Sundt at WWF for this compilation.

Earlier posts:

U.S. National Climate Assessment: Resources and media

U.S. National Climate Assessment to be released May 6

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7 Responses to 2014 National Climate Assessment key findings, Part 1: Overview and Our Changing Climate

  1. Grant Holcomb says:

    Coral reefs are up against steep odds, according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment released last week. Among the many scary charts therein, those illustrating the affects of ocean warming and acidification on coral reef are most ominous for Hawaii, where more than 60 percent of the country’s reefs exist. In Hawaii, reefs are home to 7,000-plus marine inhabitants and work to effectively diminish wave energy in major storms, thus protecting land from surges. Hawaii’s beautiful bays and white sand beaches are also related to reef ecosystems, including the major tourist activities of snorkeling, diving, and surfing. But scientists say the ocean is currently warming at a rate 15 times faster now than in the past 10,000 years, which can cause coral to bleach. When coral bleaches or its pH levels fluctuate, it can become infected by disease or otherwise weakened, thus making it more susceptible to storm surges, human interaction, or other things from which it would normally be able to protect itself. So how can we protect coral reefs before it’s too late?

  2. Grant Holcomb says:

    Faced with the millennial consequences of climate change and the inadequacy of our short term political processes to engage with that issue in an effective way. In this context, the involvement of faith communities and religious leaders becomes even more critical. Faith communities provide the millennial perspective and the social capital for sustainable change in addressing climate change.

  3. Grant Holcomb says:

    Saying when exactly an El Niño has developed is tricky, because the phenomenon is clearest when looking at sea surface temperatures averaged over three months. To work around that, NOAA forecasters issue an El Niño Advisory (meaning El Niño conditions are in place or expected to continue) when three criteria are met. The first requires that the temperature anomaly in the surface waters exceeds 0.5°C (or 0.9°F). The second has to indicate that patterns of convection and winds are consistent with an El Niño, and the third that a three-month index of ocean temperatures will exceed the necessary threshold.

  4. Grant Holcomb says:

    Part of East Antarctica is more vulnerable than expected to a thaw that could trigger an unstoppable slide of ice into the ocean and raise world sea levels for thousands of years, a study showed on Sunday. If this were to happen there is no telling the countless effects and impacts it would have on our world. The ecological consequences would be tremendous beginning with the rising sea levels that could change the entire make-up of our planet.

    • Rick - Climate Science Watch says:

      I think you’re referring to the two new studies just coming out that suggest there is a now-irreversible movement toward collapse over time of part of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which will lead to a substantial rise in sea level with great impacts on coastal civilization worldwide. Good article in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/13/science/earth/collapse-of-parts-of-west-antarctica-ice-sheet-has-begun-scientists-say.html. This looks like very serious stuff — another wake-up call. We’ll be hearing a good deal more about it.

      • cosmicomics says:

        The papers about the West Antarctica glaciers have received a good deal of coverage. Another paper that came out around the same time found that the Wilkes Basin area of the east has similar geological characteristics, and could also be facing an unstoppable collapse:
        “Until recently, only West Antarctica was considered unstable, but now we know that its 10 times bigger counterpart in the East might also be at risk,” study co-author Anders Levermann, a researcher at Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, said in a statement.


        “Using recently improved topographic data [6] in combination with ice-dynamic simulations, we show here that the removal of a specific coastal ice volume equivalent to less than 80
        mm of global sea-level rise at the margin of the Wilkes Basin destabilizes the regional ice flow and leads to a self-sustained discharge of the entire basin and a global sea-level rise of 3–4 m. Our results are robust with respect to variation in ice parameters, forcing details and model resolution as well as increased surface mass balance, indicating that East Antarctica may become a large contributor to future sea-level rise on timescales beyond a century.”


  5. Grant Holcomb says:

    Germany’s renewable energy efforst are remarkable for their scope and its widespread support, particularly in a heavily industrialized country like Germany. “Don’t forget what Germany is doing right now. It’s changing its power supply,” Paul Hockenos, a Berlin-based energy expert and journalist. “The last time when an energy supply was changed was the industrial revolution; this is something that has never been done before.” It is true this is something never done before, but must be done many times over across the world.

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