U.K. Climate Study Warns of Increased Disaster Risk for Next 200 Years

In one of the most somber assessments yet of the consequences of global warming, scientists at the U.K.’s University of Bristol (http://www.bris.ac.uk.) warned: “As temperatures rise with global warming, an increased risk of forest fires, droughts and flooding is predicted for the next 200 years.”

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (http://www.pnas.org), appears as brush fires rage out of control in Spain and Portugal, while heat waves sweep the U.S. The heightened disaster scenarios do not bode well for the insurance industry’s future loss ratios.

The researchers gathered results from 52 computer simulations to calculate the risks from climate-induced changes to the world’s key ecosystems. They concluded that “despite the commitment we have already to global warming, even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases now the researchers predict that Eurasia, eastern China, Canada, Central America, and Amazonia are at risk of forest loss (up to 30 percent probability for a global warming of less then 2°C [3.6°F] and increasing to more than 60 percent for a warming of more than 3°C [5.4°F]), while the far north, Amazonia and many semi-arid regions will become more susceptible to wildfires.”

The study also indicated that “less freshwater availability, and with it more intense droughts, are likely to occur in West Africa, Central America, southern Europe and the eastern USA. Other regions, particularly areas north of 50˚N, tropical Africa and northwest South America, will be at significant risk of excessive runoff as trees are lost, increasing the chances of flooding as temperatures rise.”

The researchers also found that if the temperature increase is more than 3°C [5.4°F], “land carbon sinks could release their stored carbon, starting a positive feedback loop that would increase atmospheric carbon dioxide.”

Lead author of the paper, Marko Scholze, stated: “Most importantly we show the steeply increasing risks, and increasingly large areas affected, associated with higher warming levels. This analysis represents a considerable step forward for discussions about ‘dangerous’ climate change and its avoidance.”

The bulletin explained how the study was conducted as follows: “The team from QUEST (Quantifying and Understanding the Earth System, a project funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and based at Bristol University), with a colleague from the University of Southampton, quantified the risks of climate-induced changes in key ecosystem processes, using novel methods. They gathered results from more than 50 climate model simulations to calculate these risks and then grouped the results according to varying amounts of global warming: less than 2°C, 2-3°C, and more than 3°C [3.6°F; 3.6°F-5.4°F and +5.4°F].

“For each of the temperature groups they show the probability of shifts in forest cover and the areas which exceed the natural variability in wildfire frequency or freshwater supply for the coming 200 years.”

In an interview with the BBC, Richard Betts, manager of Climate Impacts at the Met Office’s Hadley Centre, noted that the findings, coming from a number of models, were nonetheless in basic agreement. He pointed out that learning where different models agree – and where they disagree – is an important step forward in the scientific community’s attempts to gauge the impact of climate change and global warming.