Washington, D.C. will feel like present-day Mississippi by 2080, researchers say

In one generation, the climate of many American cities will experience a noticeable shift.

  • A recent study used climate data, both current and projected, to examine how the climates of North American cities might change over the course of the next generation.
  • In one scenario, the climates of many cities will resemble that of locations about 500 miles away, mostly to the south.
  • The study aims to present the long-term effects of climate change in a personal, tangible way.

By 2080, the climate of many American cities will resemble that of locations currently hundreds of miles away, according to new research from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

A recent study — published in Nature Communications — examined 540 urban areas across the U.S. and Canada, and for each compiled current and projected climate data along the measures of minimum and maximum temperature, and seasonal precipitation. For the projected data, the researchers used two hypothetical scenarios: the global community continues unmitigated on its current trajectory, or it enacts measures to contain emissions and, therefore, global warming.

The results showed that both scenarios will produce noticeable changes to the climate of many cities, but continuing on the current path will bring more noticeable changes.

"Under current high emissions the average urban dweller is going to have to drive more than 500 miles to the south to find a climate like that expected in their home city by 2080," study author Matt Fitzpatrick of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science told Phys.org. "Not only is climate changing, but climates that don't presently exist in North America will be prevalent in a lot of urban areas."

In the unmitigated scenario (pictured above in section b), the results show that many North American cities will experience climate conditions currently seen in locations about 500 miles away, and mostly to the south.

"The climate of cities in the northeast will tend to feel more like the humid subtropical climates typical of parts of the Midwest or southeastern U.S. today — warmer and wetter in all seasons," the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science wrote on its website. "For instance, Washington, D.C. will feel more like northern Mississippi. The climates of western cities are expected to become more like those of the desert Southwest or southern California — warmer in all seasons, with changes in the amount and seasonal distribution of precipitation. San Francisco's climate will resemble that of Los Angeles."

Visualizing the effects of climate change

The authors wrote that these kinds of climate analyses are useful because they help frame the projected effects of climate change in ways that are personal and tangible, and less abstract.

"It is difficult for individuals to detect and conceptualize gradual changes in climate, particularly where natural variability is high and when expected changes in climate are couched solely in numbers (mean temperatures, precipitation variability, and so forth)," the researchers wrote. "A crucial next step is to join with educators, psychologists, and social scientists to assess the extent to which climate-analog mapping can help increase climate change engagement and awareness."

Still, it can be hard to recognize the effects of climate change — even as they're happening — because we're not quite skilled at noticing subtle changes over time, as Daniel Glaser, science gallery director at King's College London, told The Guardian:

"...our experience of temperature is relative: if you place one hand in hot water and the other in cold water and then put both in a lukewarm bath, you can't tell how warm the bath actually is – your cold hand will feel it as boiling hot, while your hot hand will feel it as soothingly chilly.

"So gradual changes in climate are eclipsed by our short-term responses to the weather, which fluctuates every day. We also adapt to long-term changes, so they are harder to notice: you'll immediately jump out of a scalding hot bath, while if you get into a lukewarm one and keep adding hot water, you might not even realise when it's verging on dangerous (if you ignore the rising water levels and rubber ducks in distress). Let that be a warning to the climate sceptics."

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.