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Science & Tech

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Study forecasts start of new climate era

Locations around the globe will soon reach climatic tipping points, with some in tropical regions – home to most of the world’s biodiversity – feeling the first effects of unprecedented eras of elevated temperatures as soon as seven years from now, according to a study released Wednesday.

On average, locations worldwide will leave behind the climates that have existed from the middle of the 19th century through the beginning of the 21st century by 2047 if no progress is made in curbing emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, said researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who sought to forecast the timing of that event for 54,000 locations.

If they are correct, the transition would occur by 2020 in Manokwari, Indonesia; by 2023 in Kingston, Jamaica; by 2029 in Lagos, Nigeria; by 2047 in Washington, D.C.; by 2066 in Reykjavik, Iceland; and by 2071 in Anchorage, Alaska.

“The boundary of passing from the climate of the past to the climate of the future really happens surprisingly soon,” said Christopher Field, director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science, who was not part of the research team but has read the study, published in the journal Nature.

At the transition point, the average temperature of its coolest year will be greater than the average temperature of its hottest year for the period from 1860 to 2005, which the researchers set as their base line for comparison.

Researchers said at a news briefing that their estimates are “conservative,” based on mountains of data from 39 models and accurate within five years for any of the locations they studied.

Although research shows that more warming occurs nearer Earth’s poles – and the melting of Arctic ice sheets is the iconic image of a warming planet – the tropics are especially vulnerable, because even a small change in climate will affect a wide range of species.

The new study is hardly the first to document the steady march toward higher temperatures around the globe. Less than two weeks ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its fifth report, describing a planet that is warming at an accelerated pace because of human activity.

But by predicting the point at which traditional climates will be replaced by hotter futures, the new study’s group – led by Camilo Mora, an assistant professor in the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s geography department – provided a fresh way to look at a problem that often is seen as a global phenomenon, except by authorities who must respond to the increasing toll of floods, droughts, wildfires and severe weather.

“I think people don’t appreciate the fact that one of the metrics we are most familiar with, and definitely have the most difficulty dealing with, extreme heat, is coming down the track,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences at Princeton University.

“The people who are going to be really hard hit are in developing countries. But I wouldn’t say the U.S. is exactly safe,” he added.

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