Climate & Energy Background

"The very notion of the Northeast as we know it is at stake. The near-term emissions choices we make in the Northeast and throughout the world will help determine the climate and quality of life our children and grandchildren experience."

Dr. Cameron Wake, UNH Research Associate Professor, UNHSA Faculty Fellow, and Director of Carbon Solutions New England

 

Today, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations are at their highest recorded levels in more than 400,000 years (1). According to the report Indicators of Climate Change in the Northeast 2005, the average annual temperature in the northeastern United States has increased by approximately 1.8° Fahrenheit (F) since 1899. In the last 30 years alone, the annual average temperature in the northeast has risen 1.4 F. The greatest warming has occurred during the winter season, with an average annual December to February temperature increase of 4.4 F from 1970 to 2000 (2).

Since our climate has continued to change over the course of Earth’s history, why should we be concerned now? Over the past century, human activities, primarily from the combustion of fossil fuels, have significantly increased the amount of heat trapping gases in the atmosphere, resulting in CO2 concentration levels that are nearly as high as were seen when dinosaurs roamed the Earth during the Cretaceous period (3). This accumulation of gases enhances the Earth's natural greenhouse effect and have led to changes in the Earth’s energy balance and therefore to its climate.

It should be of no surprise, then, that New Hampshire and New England are being affected by the resulting changes to the climate system. Evidence of climate change impacts surround us in the form of subtle but clear signals in our landscape (4):

  • Later freezing of lake and river waters in the fall
  • Earlier lake and river ice break and water flow in spring
  • Reduced average total winter snowfall, especially in northern and coastal areas
  • Reduced average number of days with snow on the ground
  • More intense precipitation events, defined as more than two inches of water falling in a 48-hour period
  • Rising sea levels along coasts
  • Rising average annual sea surface temperatures

While some of these impacts might result in changes that sound good on the surface – such as longer growing seasons or earlier maple sap flows and bloom times for spring plants like apple trees and lilacs – the impact of these changes is more complicated. Climate changes threaten the health of native plant and animal species (including sugar maples, migratory birds, and pollinators), ecosystems, crops, and humans – especially as new species of invasive weeds, pests, and disease-carrying organisms immigrate to New England. No one can predict the future with 100% certainty. But while it is difficult to predict the exact consequences of these climatic change impacts due to year-to-year climate variability and uncertainties in future greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE), it is evident that as GHGE continue to increase, so too will the negative impacts on New England.

And the changes our region will experience in the next century are predicated to be even more dramatic. According to the new report Climate Change in the U.S. Northeast (5), by the end of the century:

  • Annual average temperature could increase between 6-12 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • With rising temperatures and humidity, summers in New Hampshire could feel like typical summers in North Carolina.
  • Citizens in Manchester and Concord, New Hampshire, could experience more than 60 days over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, more than 20 of those days topping 100 degrees.

The evidence is clear: the ecological, human health, and economic impacts of climate change are significantly affecting our state, region, and entire planet. We can – and must – act now to address the causes and impacts of climate change.

But since we are part of the problem, we can be part of the solution. As the primary source of climate change pollution, we can change specific policies and behaviors to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases and thus lessen our vulnerability to the climatic changes that are taking place now and into the foreseeable future. How we adapt to the changes that have already been set in motion while playing our part to reduce overall GHGE will impact the quality of life in our state and region for generations to come.

References

1 National Academy of Sciences. (June 2005). Joint science academies’ statement: Global response to climate change. Washington, DC.

2 Clean Air – Cool Planet and Wake, Cameron (Climate Change Research Center, University of New Hampshire). (2005). Indicators of Climate Change in the Northeast 2005.

3 Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Ocean and Climate Change Institute. (Posted June 2, 2006.) Global Warming Q & A.

4 National Academy of Sciences. (June 2005). Joint science academies’ statement: Global response to climate change. Washington, DC: 4-27.

5 Northeast Climate Impact Assessment (NECIA) summary report. (October 2006). Published by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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