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.

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