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Climate future: New York City could feel something like Arkansas in 2080 — or Maryland

Matt Fitzpatrick says his project aims to translate "abstract statistical descriptions of future climate into something that's more personal, more locally relevant, less psychologically distant."

A photographer captures the sunrise behind the New

A photographer captures the sunrise behind the New York City skyline from across the Hudson River in Jersey City, N.J., on Feb. 5. Photo Credit: AP / J. David Ake

A new project makes it easier to imagine how climate change will impact your city decades from now.

Matt Fitzpatrick, the lead author of the study on future urban climates, created this interactive map that gives North Americans a sense of what their city may feel like in 2080. Fitzpatrick, an ecologist, is an associate professor with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in Frostburg.

The map explains a city's 2080 climate by comparing it to another North American city's current climate — making its forecasts under both high and reduced greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. Reducing humanity's collective carbon footprint in the coming years, for such things as energy, industry and travel, is critical to limiting global warming, scientists say.

Take Chicago. If current high emissions continue, its 2080 climate will feel most like what's experienced today near Lansing, Kansas. That city's summer is typically 5.7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer and 13.5 percent wetter than Chicago, and its winter is typically 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer and 31.8 percent drier. In essence, Chicago's climate would shift to reflect a place two states to the southwest.

Notably, the study defines our contemporary climate as the 1960-1990 time period; Fitzpatrick explains why below.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What will New York City's climate look and feel like in 2080, according to your study?

A: New York, under our current emission rates, if we don't do anything, ends up looking most like Jonesboro, Arkansas. But if we do reduce emissions — it's one of these cities that has a pretty big effect on it — it ends up being most like Lake Shore, Maryland, which is just south of Baltimore.

Note: Jonesboro's climate is typically 9.1 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than New York City in summer, and 8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in winter, the project shows. It was the closest match under the high emissions scenario, but Fitzpatrick notes that "we didn't find a good analog climate for New York under either scenario."

Q: When I think about climate change it’s hard for me to grasp what kind of changes could be coming. Is that part of what you were trying to do with this? How do you help people understand that things will change in concrete ways?

A: I'm not a climate scientist, I'm an ecologist, but I work with these sorts of datasets all the time as part of my work. But when I read the news, or I hear scientists talking about this — and I don't want to put all the burden on the media, because it's the way scientists talk about this — we hear things like "Scientists predict that by 2050 the mean global temperature is going to be 5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer." And I have no idea what that means for me. We don't experience mean global temperature. What we experience is climate and weather and the location where we live. And so what we wanted to do is try to translate these abstract statistical descriptions of future climate into something that's more personal, more locally relevant, less psychologically distant, and we did that using this climate analog technique. That's been around for a while, we didn't invent it.

Q: Your map says New York and Boston will get a lot warmer and drier under the high-emissions scenario. So does that mean significantly less snow?

A: There's one caveat here that is important. Like a lot of cities in the East, the future projections for New York and Boston, Philadelphia too, D.C., they're all predicted to get warmer and wetter in all seasons. ...

In essence, we're finding the most similar climate. So take New York in 2080. We ask what location is most similar to New York in 2080, and we find that that's a place in Arkansas. And then we can look at the climate in Arkansas, and we can report what the climate is in Arkansas currently as an indication of this amount of climate change we're talking about. But it turns out that there are aspects of that climate in Arkansas that aren't identical to what we expect New York to be in 2080. And one of those things is we expect New York to be wetter in all seasons than it is at present, whereas Jonesboro, Arkansas, happens to be drier than we expect New York to be in the future.

Q: The period you used for the baseline for our contemporary climate is between 1960 and 1990. I was wondering is that pretty close to what we’ve been experiencing more recently?

A: There was a decision made there early on about what we would call contemporary climate. It's fairly typical to use these 30-year means as what people call climate, as a certain time. And we thought it made more sense to use our definition of contemporary climate for the time period you just described because a lot of the changes have occurred since [1990].

Q: How will rising sea levels change the landscape of Long Island and New York?

A: I couldn't answer that myself. But I think the important point to make here is we're not considering those sorts of effects, we're not considering heat-island effects, we're not considering extreme events. (In our study) we're only looking at these longer-term averages of climate. So all of those things, especially for places like New York, are going to make the impacts of climate change on cities so much worse. Heat-island effects are going to make it worse, sea level rise is going to be a major challenge that we're going to have to deal with, and then this increasing magnitude of frequency of extreme events. So in some ways we're painting a rosier picture than what we should be, potentially.

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