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Timescales associated with climate change and their relevance in adaptation strategies

de Elía, Ramón, Biner, Sébastien, Frigon, Anne, Côté, Hélène
Climatic change 2014 v.126 no.1-2 pp. 93-106
climate, climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, surface temperature, North America
Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions that induce changes in the Earth’s climate affect particular variables and locations differently. A key part of this difference is the timescale at which this change takes place, which will eventually have important consequences for adaptation requirements. This idea of timescale associated with climate change has been used several times in the past to estimate the urgency of adaptation in particular regions. The definition of climate-change timescale is, however, not unique. For example, we can think of it in terms of an expected trend (e.g. in temperature) reaching a given threshold, or think of it in terms of the time it may take this trend to become statistically significant. We may also wonder about the validity of this speculation given that, due to natural variability, the expected trend may in fact not be realized. In this article we explore alternative ways of defining the timescale of climate-change, compare their properties, and illustrate them with an example for the case of projected surface temperature over North America. It is shown that these timescales are analytically related but may differ substantially in magnitude under certain conditions. In particular, it is shown that climate change impact on vulnerable systems may arrive before statistical detection of the variable’s trend takes place. This fact may have implications on how climate change impacts are seen by those with diverging interests.