GFDL - Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory

Stationarity is dead: Whither water management?

Key Findings

  • The viewpoint that climate projections are vague and lack credibility has been reflected in the recent actions of policymakers.

  • Science can no longer support this point of view.
  • It is crucial to consider what science and policy can do to support adaptation to climate change.

Milly, P.C.D., J. Betancourt, M. Falkenmark, R.M. Hirsch, Z.W. Kundzewicz, D.P. Lettenmaier, and R.J. Stouffer. Science – 319(5863), 573-574.

The world spends over a half trillion
$US per year on water infrastructure, but the reigning paradigm for
planning these multi-decade investments?the assumption of climatic
and hydrologic stationarity? is out of sync with scientific
knowledge about climate change. The paper explains why the
stationarity paradigm should be buried, and suggests directions that
will be fruitful for efficient water planning in the future.

Water planners, who must plan robustly
on a time scale of decades (infrastructure lifetimes), are not
ignorant of climate change, but the profession has been slow to
change its modus operandi in the face of projected climate
change, citing the vagueness and the lack of credibility of climate
projections. This paper states that science can no longer support
this point of view. However, this viewpoint is not universal and has
not been reflected in the recent actions of policymakers. As recently
as May of 2007, the U.S. Senate rejected the Kerry-Feingold-Collins
Global Climate Change Amendment to the Water Resources Development
Act. This amendment would have required the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers to use the best available climate science to account for
the potential future impact of climate change on projects planned by
the Corps. Meanwhile, decaying infrastructure in the developed world
needs to be re-built; Millennium Development Goals for water will
require (among other things) new water infrastructure in the rest of
the world. Can the world afford to make these enormous investments
without consideration of the changing climate?

The world?s attention has recently
turned to climate change. Because much change has already occurred,
and because even more inevitable change is ?in the pipeline? for
the next few decades, it is crucial to consider what science and
policy can do to support adaptation to climate change. Water is
perhaps the single most tangible connection between human society and
climate. Indeed, it was a key issue highlighted in the Synthesis
Report of the 4th IPCC Assessment.

Click here to access the manuscript that is in press.

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