Drought, driven by a combination of El Niño and climate change, has disrupted shipping through the Panama Canal in recent months. Dropping water levels in Lake Gatun forced Panama Canal authorities to pose restrictions on the number of ships that can pass the canal, dropping from the normal 38 down to 24 transits a day by November 2023, causing long queues at nearby ports as ships wait their turn to pass. If the restrictions remain in place through 2024, there could be up to 4,000 fewer ships—with cargo ranging from children’s toys, to solar panel components, to life-saving insulin—passing the canal in 2024. Delay and disruption along shipping routes will only become a more common occurrence in a warmer world. These 7 graphics show how drought threatens serious disruptions to the global supply chain.
Panama is currently suffering a prolonged drought that began in early 2023 and has not let up. In October, rainfall was 43% lower than average levels, making it the driest October since the 1950s. For the area around the canal, 2023 was one of the driest two years since record keeping began in the country.
Panama’s severe drought is being exacerbated by the double-whammy of a strong El Niño and record-breaking global warming— exceeding the pre-industrial temperature average by 1.35 C. El Niño is a natural climate fluctuation that brings warmer-than-average air and ocean waters to the West coast of the Americas. That influx of warmth can vary in strength and last between nine and twelve months, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts it will continue into at least April of 2024.
The severity of El Niño fluctuations is linked to climate change. Climate modeling shows swings between El niño and its counterpart La niña have been growing more extreme, resulting in the more frequent and intense events seen in the past few decades Under high emission scenarios, in which we don’t get warming in check, El Niño events could become 15-20% stronger.
The drought has had a particularly profound effect on the man-made Gatún Lake, which holds the water supply that operates the Panama Canal. On January 1, 2024 water levels in Gatún Lake were lower than in any other January on record, almost 6 ft lower than January 1, 2023. Millions of gallons of water from Gatún, along with other regional lakes, are used to fill the locks that raise ships above sea level for the passage over Panama’s terrain. Insufficient water supply jeopardizes ship passage
Not only does Gatún Lake feed the locks that power the Canal, it also supplies drinking water to millions of residents in the central region of the country, including two major cities: Panama City and Colón. As both Panama’s population and the scale of global shipping has grown, there has been greater demand on the lake for freshwater.
In response to dropping water levels, Panama Canal Authorities have been forced to institute restrictions on ship passages. Ship transits are currently limited to 24 per day until April of 2024, when the authorities will re-evaluate at the start of the rainy season. The number of ship passages was 30% lower than usual by the end of 2023. The unreliability of transit through Panama has already prompted some ships to re-route.
Lower water levels also restrict the size of ships that can pass through the canal, as larger, heavier vessels sit lower in the water, putting them at higher risk of running aground in shallower waters. Large ships also require more lake water to lift them in the locks. As global shipping volume has grown, many shipping fleets have, too— relying on massive vessels that can carry more goods, but are harder to navigate through shallow waterways like the Panama Canal.
The Panama Canal accounts for 5% of global shipping, so disruptions here affect the worldwide supply chain, resulting in delayed shipments, more fuel usage, and GDP losses.
The impacts of shipping disruptions in the Panama Canal are also being compounded by political events in the Red Sea. The Suez Canal, an alternative route for ships bound between Europe and Asia, has also had shipping disrupted by attacks from the Houthis, a Yemeni military group targeting Israel-bound ships. With both the Panama and Suez Canals becoming less reliable routes, more ships will be forced to take the long way around— traveling down to the southern points of Africa and South America.
Far to the north, another waterway is being rapidly altered by climate change. As the Arctic warms faster than any other place on the planet, summer sea ice has been disappearing at a rate of almost 13% per decade. This has opened up new lanes of ice-free water that some countries are eying as potential new routes. But navigating through a melting Arctic is still dangerous, and the majority of new ship traffic in the Arctic is comprised of smaller military or fishing boats, rather than the large shipping vessels used to carry commercial cargo.
Furthermore, increased ship traffic in the Arctic has the potential to further emissions, as melting ice could open up access to new sources of oil and natural gas— perpetuating climate warming.
Though December rains saved Panama Canal officials from instituting further restrictions on ship passage, the region is still experiencing El Niño, and sea surface temperatures in early 2024 have continued to climb higher than 2023. Each day in 2024 has recorded the highest temperatures on record for that calendar date. The only path to stabilizing global shipping lies in stabilizing the global climate.
This year, Woodwell Climate’s Just Access Initiative went global. Just Access works in close partnership with communities to provide tailored, actionable climate risk reports for Rio Branco, Brazil; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Summit County, Utah; and Lawrence, MA. At COP28, Just Access released their latest report in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development of the DRC, which focused on climate risks and potential solutions in the country and identified carbon markets as a potential funding mechanism for adaptation efforts.
Just Access collaborates with local officials and advocates to ensure the final reports cover information critical to their community’s planning. So far, 14 reports have been completed and more are on the way.
Read the report.
In January of 2023, the Biden Administration restored protections against logging and road-building for more than 9 million acres of the Tongass National Forest, the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest.
This came after Woodwell Climate’s Dr. Wayne Walker and Geospatial Analyst Seth Gorelik, along with long-time collaborator Dr. Dominick DellaSalla of Wild Heritage, delivered a research report to the Biden administration showing massive carbon stores in Tongass National Forest and highlighting the importance of roadless areas.
In 2023, Science on the Fly’s (SOTF) focused their activities on stewarding their community of scientists. Together they collected more than 3,000 water samples from hundreds of locations around the globe. SOTF leverages the passion and dedication of the global fly fishing community to gather data on the health of rivers across the world. With this data, SOTF can improve our understanding of how watersheds and river systems change over time due to climate change and local effects.
Read about the project’s activities this year.
We sent 10 Polaris Project students into the field this summer. The Polaris Project engages the brightest young minds from a diversity of backgrounds to tackle global climate research in one of Earth’s most vulnerable environments: the Arctic.
Students conducted their own research projects over two weeks at a field research station near Bethel, Alaska. Afterwards, they returned to the Center to analyze samples, and presented their findings at the American Geophysical Union meeting in December.
Woodwell Climate also hosted several interns through the Partnership Education Program. These undergraduate students participated in research and communications activities across the center.
Read PEP intern, Jonathan Kopeliovich’s story about research in Howland Forest.
Woodwell Climate has been conducting tropical forest research in Brazil for nearly two decades alongside partner organization IPAM Amazônia. This year, Water Program Director, Dr. Marcia Macedo and collaborators, including Dr. Ane Alencar of IPAM, convened a multi-day workshop in Brazil that produced a policy brief on forest degradation. They then organized experts to submit public comments on Brazil’s updated policy for controlling Amazon deforestation, which for the first time also addresses forest degradation.
Read the policy brief here.
Across the globe, Permafrost Pathways partner, Alaska Institute for Justice (AIJ), hosted a “Rights, Resilience, and Community-Led Adaptation” workshop on Dena’ina homelands in Anchorage, Alaska. The two-day workshop created space for Tribes to share their expertise with each other and connect face-to-face with federal and state government representatives to access resources and technical assistance.
Read more about the workshop.
Our experts showed up as thought leaders this year at several high profile events. As just a few examples, Woodwell Climate’s Arctic Program Director Dr. Sue Natali and Senior Science Policy Advisor Peter Frumhoff both spoke on panels alongside other leading voices in climate at SxSW in Austin, TX. Senior Geospatial Analyst, Greg Fiske attended the Esri User Conference, where his topographic map of Alaska garnered two awards. And Assistant Scientist, Dr. Ludmilla Rattis gave a talk at TED Countdown about her research on the role of Tapirs in rainforest restoration. (Recording coming in early 2024)
Woodwell Climate team members showed up in over 5,000 media stories this year. Our scientific leadership provided quotes for a broad range of high profile climate stories in New York Times, Reuters, Boston Globe, CNN and Grist, just to name a few. Senior Scientist Dr. Jen Francis was quoted over 4.2K times, appearing in major news outlets like the Washington Post and AP News to provide accessible context about the links between climate change and extreme weather events.
Last fall, Scotty Creek Research Station in Canada—one of the only Indigenous-led climate research stations in the world—was almost entirely consumed by a late-season wildfire. Woodwell Climate’s Permafrost Pathways project is providing rebuilding support to the Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation. Project scientists Dr. Kyle Arndt and Marco Montemayor visited the site for two weeks this spring to restore an essential carbon monitoring tower.
Our researchers published 80 peer-reviewed scientific publications this year. From the Arctic to the Tropics, from soil concentrations to river concentrations, Woodwell Climate had a part in discovery.
Explore all our publications.
Woodwell Climate’s President & CEO Dr. Max Holmes brought Woodwell Climate to the main stage of CERAWeek, Green Accelerator Davos, GenZero Climate Summit in Singapore, Climate Week NYC, and Mountainfilm Festival. He discussed cutting-edge climate science alongside notable figures like Bill McKibben and former Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez.Read about Dr. Holmes’ time at Davos.
On September 27th, Woodwell Climate scientists and policy experts from the Center for Climate and Security (CCS) conducted a briefing on climate security risks in Iran and Türkiye. The presentation, hosted in the Capitol, drew in a crowd of interested congressional staffers to learn more about the relationship between the worsening climate crisis and national security issues.
This was the second of two such collaborative briefings, following a presentation to members of executive branch agencies, including the State Department, Department of Defense, US Institute of Peace, National Intelligence Council, and the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, earlier in the month. Alex Naegele, a postdoctoral researcher with the Climate Risk Program at Woodwell, presented the results of two risk analyses produced in collaboration with CCS. The analyses used model projections to examine the impacts of climate change on rainfall, water scarcity, and wildfire.
Security experts from CCS— Tom Ellison, Elsa Barron, and Brigitte Hugh— then provided insight into political and social issues in both countries that intersect with climate risks, creating potentially destabilizing effects. In Türkiye, for example, diminishing water resources have the potential to create cross-boundary conflicts if it’s perceived by downstream countries to be “hoarding” water for its own citizens.
The briefing was highly attended by congressional staff across the political spectrum from 27 different House and Senate offices.
“The congressional crowd can be different and you never know exactly what you’re going to get,” says Woodwell External Affairs Manager Andrew Condia. “But you could just tell by the questions, and sort of the attention to the presentation that this was a very relevant and interesting topic across the board. It was a much more bipartisan turnout than I was expecting.”
That turnout speaks to the broad interest in how climate change represents a growing threat to national security interests. By speaking on climate through a security lens, Woodwell scientists are able to broaden interest and attention on climate issues throughout various branches of the federal government.
“Through this collaboration with CCS, we’re able to use our science and forward-looking approach to highlight specific climate risks to the security community. It’s something that’s not widely practiced and it’s a unique position to be in,” says Naegele.
Woodwell and CCS are looking forward to expanding the scope of future climate security case studies to draw links between the impacts of climate change and disruption to other countries or even other social systems.
“It would be interesting to apply this same thinking to an analysis of a certain theme instead of country. Perhaps examining impacts on supply chains or food systems,” says Ellison. “There’s a ton of issues we’ve barely scratched the surface on.”
“There are so many cultural differences to consider,” notes Dave McGlinchey. “From how the meetings proceed, to specific local sensitivities, even down to Congolese humor. Even if I was cracking jokes in fluent French, it would be impossible to get the tone right. That’s why having someone like Joseph was so important.”
In July, McGlinchey, Chief of Government Relations at Woodwell Climate, traveled with members of the Center’s risk team to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo for a two-day workshop. The Center has been involved in community work in the country for over 15 years, led in large part by Joseph Zambo, Woodwell’s policy coordinator in the DRC. This workshop represents the latest collaboration— an initial assessment of the country’s future climate risks. Congolese professors, scientists, and government officials joined to discuss gaps in the data and to develop adaptation strategies to be included in a final report later this year.
The workshop was facilitated by Zambo who, with poignant questions, stories to recount, and of course, a bit of humor, guided the group through the tough work of planning for the future.
The community risk work in Kinshasa is one of over 20 successful risk assessments conducted as part of Woodwell Climate’s Just Access initiative. The project produces free, location-specific climate risk analysis for cities and regions both in the US and abroad. The hope is that, by providing free access to quality data— something often offered by private companies at prohibitively high costs — Just Access can facilitate adaptation planning for under-resourced communities.
“With Just Access, we want to remove the barrier of cost for communities that want to understand the long-term risks they are facing because of climate change,” says McGlinchey. “Often these communities are the ones already facing climate-related challenges that will worsen as the century goes on.”
Guided by a community’s particular concerns, Woodwell’s Risk team works with available data on key climate risks—flooding, heat, water scarcity, fire— and uses models to construct an image of how those events are likely to change as global temperatures climb. In the DRC, water is a core concern, both in its absence, causing drought and crop failure, and in its abundance.
“Heavy rains cause horrific flooding in the city of Mbandaka almost once or twice a year,” says Zambo. “In the capital, heavy rains are also destroying homes, roads, electrical structures, and internet connections.”
The most pressing risks vary from region to region. Across the world, in Acre, Brazil, Senior Scientist Emeritus Dr. Foster Brown says, “the word here is ‘heat.’” In Homer and Seldovia, Alaska, increasing wildfire days featured heavily.
But improvements in data availability and resolution, as well as refinements of climate models, have made it possible to replicate assessments for a variety of risks in places as distant and different from each other as Homer, Alaska and Kerala, India. Risk assessments can offer both region-wide crop yield estimates and street-level maps of flooding for a single city district to inform community planning.
Key to the success of municipal-level work are relationships with people like Zambo, who can offer insights into the needs of a community that can’t be approximated from the outside. Each community is different— in what information they need to make decisions, their level of technical expertise, their governmental capacity to implement changes, and in the ways they prefer to work.
So, with each new assessment, the Risk team starts from scratch, building new relationships and listening to community needs. This process takes double time on the international stage, where a history of superficial NGO and academic involvement can overshadow collaboration.
“A main goal with these reports is trust,” says Darcy Glenn, a Woodwell Climate research assistant who organized a risk assessment and workshop for Province 1 in Nepal last year with help from connections from her master’s program. “Building trust in the models, and trust in the methodology, and in us. That’s been our biggest hurdle when working with municipal leaders.”
Building that trust takes time. Province 1 was one of an early set of communities who worked with Woodwell Climate on risk assessments. While local leaders were interested in flooding and landslide risk information, what they really wanted was to increase the capacity of their own scientists and government employees to conduct climate modeling themselves. So the project was adapted to meet that need by tailoring a training workshop. The process took over a year to complete but Glenn says, that’s relationship-building time that can’t be rushed.
It also highlights the importance of pre-established long term connections in the places we work.
“It’s one thing to go into a new community by yourself, it’s another to go in with someone who has been there 30 years and can help navigate,” says Dr. Brown. “You have to look for the key people who can help make things happen.”
Within Brazil, Dr. Brown is now regarded as one of these “key people”. He has been living and working in Rio Branco for over 30 years and his credibility as a member of the community helped facilitate an assessment of extreme heat risk in the region. In the DRC, Zambo has been working with Woodwell Climate on various projects for over a decade. Without their expertise to bridge cultural and language gaps, completing projects in Brazil and the DRC would not have been possible.
After getting risk information into the hands of communities, then comes the hard work of putting it to use. For Dr. Christopher Schwalm, Director of Woodwell Climate’s Risk Program, “the goal of the risk assessments is to give communities every potential tool we can to build resilience for themselves and future generations. With access to the right information, the next step in the adaptation planning process can begin.”
In Rio Branco, Dr. Brown says speaking to the changes people are already noticing has helped individuals connect better to the data. He’s been using the context of heat and fire alongside information from their report to strengthen conversations about existing forest and climate initiatives, authoring an alert for the tri-national “MAP” region (Madre de Dios in Peru, Acre in Brazil, and Pando in Bolivia) about heat conditions and the implications for this year’s fire season.
He has also been introducing the information from the report to the community in other ways— teaching and speaking at events. According to Dr. Brown, widespread understanding of both near- and long-term climate risks will become more important for all communities as climate change progresses and impacts each place differently. Cities and towns will need reliable information to help them practically plan for the future.
“We’re trying to get people to expand their time ranges and start thinking about the future. And this report has helped,” says Dr. Brown. “Because the people who are going to see 2100 are already here. What will we be able to tell them about their future?”
Summit County, Utah is preparing for a changing climate.
The high-elevation county boasts a strong winter sports economy, vast swaths of national forest and agricultural land, and a population of 43,000 people that stand to be affected by climate-driven changes. The risks to the county’s health and economy from climate change were outlined in a recent report by Woodwell Climate, and shared with the community through the first in a series of climate change and public health panels.
The risk assessment was completed as a part of the Center’s Just Access initiative to provide free climate risk insights to municipalities across the globe, in order to equip them for the changes ahead. Working with members of Summit County’s Sustainability Department, as well as members of the community at large, the Woodwell team targeted three major climate risk variables for analysis— drought, water scarcity, and wildfire.
According to Emily Quinton, Sustainability Program Manager for Summit County, these risks are ones the county is already concerned about, based on existing conditions, but wanted to know what that would mean for them in coming decades.
“We have some good baseline knowledge about the risks we are facing already,” Quinton said. “What was different and new that the Woodwell assessment could offer was those much longer-term future projections.”
In Summit County, the Sustainability Department is a subset of the Public Health Department, which encouraged the risk assessment to delve into the ways in which climate risks affect the health of county residents. Changes in water availability were a particular concern for the department.
The report found that the northern and easternmost portions of the county are most likely to be affected by drought. Summit County is already experiencing severe drought conditions 40% of the year; that number is expected to increase to 50% by midcentury.
Water scarcity will also increase. Driven by both increasing demand from the population and decreasing availability, water scarcity in most communities within Summit County is expected to be at 189% by 2030— meaning demand will be nearly twice that of available supply.
“With the drought and water scarcity topics,” said Quinton, “making the connection between how a decrease in water quantity will place risk on water quality was important. Monitoring water quality is a really crucial responsibility of the Public Health Department.”
Woodwell Research Assistant, Darcy Glenn, who worked previously in Summit County’s Sustainability Department and helped facilitate the production of the report says, “If you don’t have any water in your wells, water quality goes down because you don’t have enough to dilute any contaminant that might be a problem.”
Summit County currently grapples with wildfire threat as well. Wildfire danger days— in which temperature and moisture conditions make fires more likely to burn out of control— will become a more common occurrence, leading to fires that cause more evacuations, damage, and air quality concerns. The majority of the county will add eight or more wildfire danger days to their year by the end of the century.
Public health can be a less polarizing context in which to discuss climate risks publicly. Despite the political nature surrounding climate change in some regions, Glenn notes public health can serve as a lens most people relate to and take seriously.
“It can be hit or miss on climate change, but if your kid has asthma, you want to know about your air quality. Changes in the environment, whether people acknowledge climate change or not, align with things they’ve seen,” says Glenn. “So we’re trying to approach the topic in a way that’s accessible and start a conversation that’s welcoming to the whole community.”
After the completion of the assessment, Woodwell Risk team members presented the information to the Summit County Board of Health, then opened up communications with the public. In May, the county’s Health Department hosted the first of three planned events in a speaker series, focused on sharing the results of the report to help county residents better understand the extent of risk where they live. Glenn spoke alongside local climate experts and took questions from attendees.
The next two events in the series will discuss the physical and mental health impacts of climate change, as well as some potential adaptation solutions. According to Quinton, these events will aid the county in developing plans for resilience that address the top concerns of the public.
“Climate preparedness can’t happen without an understanding of what the potential risks are. The Climate Risk Assessment and the public events feel like important steps to more directly integrate climate change into the preparedness work Summit County is already doing,” says Quinton.
A recent paper, led by Woodwell Climate postdoctoral researcher Dr. José Safanelli, revealed that Brazil’s farms have been steadily moving out of the most suitable regions for agriculture—opening up a significant portion of the world’s agricultural production to vulnerability from the changing climate.
The study, published in Applied Geography, used an index to assess “Grain-cropping suitability” for two key staple crops—soy and maize. Suitability was determined by climatic factors (temperature and precipitation), as well as soil quality and terrain. The result was a continuous map detailing the areas of the country with the best biophysical conditions for growing crops.
Overlaying land use change data from the past two decades with this new map revealed a historical trend of agricultural lands expanding towards areas with poorer soil quality and lower suitability for grain-cropping, primarily in the north central and northeastern portion of the country.
Farmers in Brazil have been moving north to this “agricultural frontier” since the 1980s— drawn primarily by economic opportunity, as well as the higher quality climate and terrain conditions along the southern edge of the Amazon.
Despite the favorable climate, the soil is inferior. Farmers are seeking cheap land, which often comes in the form of degraded pasture, originally created by clearing forest. Rainforest soils are not naturally nutrient rich and, without any additional inputs, the soil quality becomes depleted after just a few years. Many farmers know this fact, but come anyway. Dr. Safanelli has even seen this trend unfold within his own family.
“I was born in the south of Brazil, a region that has good soil conditions. Recently, two of my uncles who are farmers emigrated to Mato Grosso. There, the climate is wetter and more stable, but the soils are poor—depleted of nutrients.”
Additional research by Woodwell Climate Assistant Scientist Dr. Ludmila Rattis suggests that climatic advantage may be short-lived. Her work indicates that the climate in these areas is changing— becoming drier and hotter as global temperatures rise—and deforestation for agricultural expansion just makes the problem worse.
“We showed in our paper that these places have good climate and terrain suitability for now,” says Dr. Safanelli. “But they are restricted in soil quality. In Mato Grosso—the largest agricultural production state in Brazil—for example, the climate has been more stable and favorable than in other parts. The problem is that, according to projected climate scenarios, climate change may push these areas out of a good suitability space.”
Brazil is currently the world’s top producer of soy, and in the top three for maize. But this expansion into lower-suitability regions has introduced greater vulnerability into the agricultural system. Farmers already must provide greater investment in fertilizing the soil to make it productive, which cuts into their margins for profit. Add to that the fact that poor-quality soils, typically low in organic matter, can make crops less resilient to extreme heat and drought.
“Crop evapotranspiration—a process that directly governs crop growth and yield—depends on soil for absorbing rainfall and storing water. These marginal soils can make farmers more susceptible to climate change’s expected drier and warmer conditions, as they have limited capacity for storing water,” says Dr. Safanelli.
Reducing these vulnerabilities, Dr. Safanelli says, will require an integrated approach— improving land management practices and increasing crop yields on existing land to reduce the pressure to expand. “Reducing the vulnerability of croplands may be possible by adopting management practices that increase the resilience of the farming system, such as fully incorporating the principles of conservation agriculture, integrated production through agroforestry, crop-forest-livestock systems, or irrigation to control dryness. And perhaps allocating some of these marginal lands for land restoration, concentrating our resources in more highly suitable croplands.”
As the planet warms, drought is an increasing threat in many regions. Research led by Woodwell Research Assistant Isabelle Runde, modeled the frequency of drought across the globe, analyzing drought changes in forest, food, and energy systems as temperatures surpass 2, 3, and 4 degrees Celsius.
Models show that unlike in a stable climate, unreliable water resources and increasing temperatures make drought more likely in many places. For every increase of 0.5 degrees C, an additional 619 million people could become exposed to extreme drought 1 in every 4 years. This is in addition to the 1.7 billion people (nearly a quarter of today’s global population) who are already exposed to these conditions in a world that has warmed by a little more than 1 degree C.
Tropical forests are one of the planet’s key natural climate solutions— able to prevent 1 degree of warming through both carbon sequestration and regional cooling effects. Deforestation, fragmentation and degradation from things like fire, and disease threaten to turn these forests from a vital sink to a source of emissions.
In recent years, the Amazon has been a net carbon source due to increased extreme drought and deforestation, leaving the Congo rainforest as the world’s last remaining stable tropical forest carbon sink.
As warming surpasses 2 degrees, the annual likelihood of drought in the Congo rainforest begins increasing faster than in the Amazon. Drought can make a forest more susceptible to further degradation, such as fire or disease, and reduces carbon sink capacity by stressing or killing trees and placing the ecosystem under stress.
Global crop production is highly concentrated in key breadbasket regions— nearly 72% of the world’s maize, wheat, rice, and soy are produced in just 5 countries. Extreme drought can reduce the productivity levels of these staple crops, among others, potentially triggering widespread food insecurity, hunger and economic disruption.
By 2 degrees of warming, the probability of drought in the breadbasket regions of both China and the United States will be greater than 50% — meaning an extreme drought roughly every other year.
Disruption will be much higher in countries where jobs in agriculture comprise a large segment of the economy. In Mexico, one of the world’s top 10 producers of maize, 12% of the workforce is in agriculture and at 1 degree, the country already has among the greatest areas of cropland exposed to drought. 90% probabilities—indicating near-annual drought—begin to emerge in some parts of the country at 2 degrees of warming.This kind of recurrent extreme drought will stress water resources for agriculture.
The Mediterranean also is a drought hotspot. Drought probability in Mediterranean croplands will increase rapidly between 2 and 3 degrees of warming, rising from just 10% to over 50% of cropland affected by drought in 3 out of 4 years.
Hydroelectricity supplies a sixth of global energy demand, and is a low-cost, low-emission alternative to fossil fuels. The overwhelming majority of new hydropower plants since 1990 have been constructed in fast-growing, developing nations.
High dependence on hydropower makes countries like Brazil and China vulnerable to energy disruption during periods of drought. Brazil draws nearly two thirds of its energy from hydroelectric resources. During a three year drought between 2012 and 2015 in Brazil, hydroelectric generation declined by 20% each year. If warming exceeds 3 degrees C, more than half of Brazil’s hydroelectric capacity will experience a likelihood of annual drought greater than 50%.
Extreme drought can also be counterproductive to reducing carbon emissions. During years of drought, expensive fossil fuel based energy is often brought in to fill demands. In addition, droughts often coincide with extreme heat events, when electricity demand peaks to run air conditioners. Beyond 3 degrees of warming, more than a third of the planet’s hydroelectric capacity will likely be exposed to extreme drought every other year.
Current international climate goals aim to limit warming to between 1.5 and 2 degrees C, but without urgent intervention, we are on track to push past that limit to at least 2.5 degrees C. Projections past 2 degrees of warming show a future where extreme drought is common, exposing already-vulnerable people, places, and economies to greater water shortages, while making it even harder to curb emissions. In order to guard water resources and the systems that depend on them, emissions need to be cut rapidly. And places already feeling the impacts of warming will need to brace to adapt to a hotter, dryer version of the world.
The city of Chelsea, Massachusetts persevered through the American Revolution and two great fires. Now its resilience is being tested by climate change, as rising sea levels and more intense storms have begun sending frequent flood waters into the city.
Woodwell Climate Research Center recently conducted a thorough analysis of flood risk in Chelsea, identifying where flooding is likely to increase with climate change. The picture it paints is one where the city’s most vulnerable citizens get hit the hardest.
Located north of Boston where Chelsea Creek merges into the Mystic River and the Boston Harbor, Chelsea is vulnerable to two forms of flooding— storm surge from the harbor and extreme rainfall events. Currently, 15% of the city falls within an area of potential flooding. That number will more than double to 34% by 2081.
The return interval of high intensity flooding events will also increase. Scientists use the term “1-in-100 year events” to refer to the kind of large-scale flooding that has a 1% likelihood of occurring over the course of a century. Woodwell calculated that today’s 1-in-100 year rainfall events could become three times as likely by mid-century, and 1-in-100 year storm surge events could be annual occurrences by 2081. That would be like the city of Chelsea experiencing flooding proportional to Hurricane Sandy every year.
Chelsea was settled on a salt marsh punctuated by five hills. The city was developed from the high ground down, and much of the marsh and wetlands around Island End and Chelsea Creek were filled in over the city’s history. These low lying areas form the city’s vulnerable floodplain.
According to Woodwell’s analysis, that floodplain contains much of the city’s vital industry. Two oil terminals sit on Chelsea’s waterfront— the Chelsea Sandwich and Gulf Oil terminals. Here, petroleum, natural gas, and other petrochemicals are stored before being transported to their final destinations. The southeastern waterfront is also a designated port area for commercial shipping.
On the western side of the floodplain is the New England Produce Center, a massive regional hub for food distribution, as well as a major employer.
“Our waterfront has been industrial for 200 years and will continue to be industrial. But we’re very concerned that industry and flooding aren’t compatible,” says Karl Allen, a planner in Chelsea’s Department of Housing and Community Development who worked with Woodwell on the analysis.
Affordable housing is also at risk. Much of the city’s affordable housing was built in the 50’s and 60’s in the lowest-lying areas of the city, where marshes were filled in to create land for their construction. These communities are already familiar with bearing the burden of environmental damages— a rail line bisects the city through a designated environmental justice corridor. At only a few feet above sea level, the rail line serves as a major inundation pathway. Without adaptation measures, climate change will hit these lower income areas hardest.
“I can say that the one thing that’s been very common for municipal and state agencies is a sense of moving goalposts,” says John Walkey, the Director of Waterfront and Climate Justice Initiatives for GreenRoots. GreenRoots is a community organization dedicated to improving urban environmental and public health in Chelsea. Walkey and Greenroots facilitated the collaboration between Woodwell and the city.
“We are now at the stage where climate processes are moving faster than our bureaucracy can,” said Walkey. That could have been a paralyzing realization, especially backed up with analysis results outlining the intensity of increased flooding. Instead, the City’s planning leaders have decided to confront the floodwaters head on, using the analysis to change the way they think about implementing routine infrastructure updates.
Of course, Water doesn’t care where one municipality begins or ends; it will flow into any accessible space. The success of Chelsea’s adaptation measures will depend on collaboration with nearby localities— Everett, Revere, Boston. For example, there are plans in the works to construct a flood defense between Chelsea and nearby Everett that sits across the Island End River. Both cities hope this landscaped wall will protect the area from major flooding until at least 2070.
Having a thorough flood risk analysis also puts the city in a good position to lobby for adaptation on a larger scale. In mid-April, Woodwell and Chelsea hosted a briefing for the offices of Massachusetts Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley on the results of the flood analysis and the regional security issue it represents.
“Chelsea is facing a severe threat from climate change over the course of the next 50 years,” said Chelsea City Manager, Tom Ambrosino during the briefing. “So we are working hard to try to be prepared for it. But a lot of these projects are beyond our immediate capability.”
There are hundreds of Chelseas across the United States facing similar, and increasingly urgent, threats from flooding, drought, heat, or extreme weather. Many communities are scrambling to adapt as disasters hit, without knowing how much more change is on the horizon. Replicating climate risk analyses like the one in Chelsea could help them get a more specific picture of what they are facing.
“When you tell people well, ‘you’ve got to design for conditions in 2070’, they say ‘what does that mean? What kind of storm are we designing for?” says Allen. “This analysis has given us a better understanding of what kind of disasters we’ll be looking at, and with what frequency, so we have a design target.”
Risk analyses are invaluable to a municipality’s ability to plan for the shifting goalposts of climate change. Yet the availability of these analyses is uneven. Cities with more resources are able to pay private companies for risk assessments, while non-profits like Woodwell work to fill in the gaps. The Center has already partnered with 14 communities in the U.S. and abroad to produce tailored analyses. But there are nearly 20 thousand municipalities in the U.S. alone. Each will experience their own unique version of climate change.
“It really highlights the need for a national climate service,” said Woodwell Research Associate Dominick Dusseau who worked on the analysis for Chelsea, “something that can provide a nationwide standard service, rather than a piecemeal thing.”
Woodwell’s analysis is a prototypical version of what could be possible with more uniform risk assessment services, as well as a model of successful community engagement. Woodwell will continue to grow its partnerships with individual cities, but the scope of climate change will require a larger, more coordinated response.
“We’re doing a lot, there’s just so much more to do,” says Dusseau.