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WIREs Clim Change
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Detection and attribution of anthropogenic climate change impacts

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Human‐influenced climate change is an observed phenomenon affecting physical and biological systems across the globe. The majority of observed impacts are related to temperature changes and are located in the northern high‐ and mid‐latitudes. However, new evidence is emerging that demonstrates that impacts are related to precipitation changes as well as temperature, and that climate change is impacting systems and sectors beyond the Northern Hemisphere. In this paper, we highlight some of this new evidence—focusing on regions and sectors that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC AR4) noted as under‐represented—in the context of observed climate change impacts, direct and indirect drivers of change (including carbon dioxide itself), and methods of detection. We also present methods and studies attributing observed impacts to anthropogenic forcing. We argue that the expansion of methods of detection (in terms of a broader array of climate variables and data sources, inclusion of the major modes of climate variability, and incorporation of other drivers of change) is key to discerning the climate sensitivities of sectors and systems in regions where the impacts of climate change currently remain elusive. Attributing such changes to human forcing of the climate system, where possible, is important for development of effective mitigation and adaptation. Current challenges in documenting adaptation and the role of indigenous knowledge in detection and attribution are described. WIREs Clim Change 2013, 4:121–150. doi: 10.1002/wcc.209

Figure 1.

Locations of significant changes in physical and biological systems shown with air temperature changes over the period 1970–2004 (HadCRUT3).4 The data series met the following criteria: (1) ending in 1990 or later; (2) spanning a period of at least 20 years; and (3) showing a significant change in either direction, as assessed by the individual studies. Red dots indicate locations of new studies since IPCC AR4.3 Yellow outlines refer to systems and regions where data remain comparatively sparse.

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Figure 2.

Direct (solid line) and indirect (dashed line) effects of non‐climate drivers of observed changes in physical and biological systems.

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Figure 3.

Categories of system responses to observed changes and non‐changes in climate and relation to publication biases.74

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Figure 4.

Methodological elements in anthropogenic climate change attribution of impacts.12

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Figure 5.

Geographic areas and types of systems for which impact attribution studies have been published. Sectors include cryosphere,12,20,92 hydrology,12,93–95 ocean chemistry,97 and biological systems.12,89,96,98 Regions are from study authors or designated by continent.99,100

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Figure 6.

Phenological change for 726 UK flora and fauna from 1976 to 2005. (a) Percentages of advancing (below horizontal) and delaying (above horizontal) trends for each taxon‐environment combination. Statistically significant advancing and delaying trends are indicated by black shading. Nonsignificant trends are indicated by white shading. The number of trends analyzed for each taxon‐environment combination (n) is given above each bar. Also shown is the significance level (P) of a two‐tailed binomial test of the null hypothesis that negative and positive trends are equally likely. (b) Mean ± SEM rates of change for plants/phytoplankton (plant; green bars), invertebrates (invert; orange bars) and vertebrates (vert; blue bars) in marine, freshwater, and terrestrial environments. All mean trends are negative, indicating an advance of phenological events.80

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Figure 7.

Rates of change in bee phenology and temperature in northeastern North America over time. Each point represents a bee specimen used in the analysis. Raw data are shown without correcting for covariates. The collection day for each bee specimen, where January 1st is day 1 (a), and the mean temperature during the month of April (in °C) at the location where the specimen was collected (b). The overall trend (black lines) and the trend from 1970 to 2010 (red lines) are shown. (c) The correlation between bee collection day and temperature. The overall trend is shown (black line). Representative species for the genera in the analysis: (d) Andrena miserabilis, (e) Coelophora inaequalis, (f) Osmia lingnaria and (g) Bombus impatiens queen.121

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Figure 8.

Shift in northern range limits of temperate macroalgae in Australia between the periods 1940–1960 and 1990–2009 as determined from herbarium records. Negative degrees indicate southward shifts. Green bars represent samples from the west coast of Australia and red bars are from the east coast. Inserts: Color plates of selected algae from Henry Harvey's Phycologia Australica (1858–1863); from top left: Caulocystis uvifera and Caulerpa flexilis and from top right: Martensia fragilis, Pterocladia lucida, and Scytothalia doryocarpa.126

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Figure 9.

Linear trend of monthly‐average TRMM precipitation data for March values 2001–2009 over the Okavango Delta in Botswana, an example of satellite data that could be used in detection of precipitation‐related impacts.185,186 Created using IRI Data Map Room (http://iridl.ldeo.columbia.edu/maproom/).

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Figure 10.

Number of publications reviewed that addressed observed adaptation in developed countries, by sector (used as a proxy for observations of adaptation). The review included publication up to July 1, 2009.195

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Figure 11.

Observed climate change impacts in the Yakutsk region of Russia, where indigenous knowledge narratives are located within 250 km of observations from the peer‐reviewed scientific literature.202 Latitude and longitude indicate the central location of the indigenous knowledge narrative overlaid on global HadCRUT3 temperature trends.4 Circles represent locations of statistically significant trends in changes in either direction in systems related to temperature or to other climate change variables, and that contain data from at least 20 years between 1970 and 2004.12 Stars represent approximate locations of indigenous knowledge narratives related to climate change.

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Assessing Impacts of Climate Change > Observed Impacts of Climate Change

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