Something was missing this year at the Masters. The stirring golf and the back-nine drama were there as always, but the stage on which it all played out was missing the vibrant pinks and reds of the azaleas and the white of the dogwoods. The traditional signs of a Southern spring at Augusta National had already come and gone, a consequence of the warmest Georgia spring on record.
You’d have to be housebound not to have noticed, and the hard data back it up. According to the Southeast Regional Climate Center, so far 2012 is the warmest year in Atlanta’s 83-year meteorological record. In fact, it’s not even close.
Since March 1, average temperatures in Atlanta have been almost 11 degrees higher than average and almost three degrees higher than the second warmest on record. According to the SRCC, those are temperatures more typical of Tampa than Atlanta.
Perhaps more ominously, the last 12 months have also been the driest April-to-April period on record, with total rainfall in Atlanta a full eight inches lower than the second driest April-to-April on record.
That data won’t come as a surprise to Aris Georgakakos, director of the Georgia Water Resources Institute at Georgia Tech. For the past five years, he and other researchers at the institute have been studying the impact of climate change, both past and future, on water resources in all of Georgia’s main watersheds.
According to that research — funded in part through a contract with the state Environmental Protection Division — Georgia’s climate has already changed significantly and is destined to change further. For example, the historical record tells us that “precipitation has already fallen by 9 to 16 percent” over the past 50 years in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint watershed, according to Georgakakis.
“I’m not going to discuss why it is changing,” Georgakakos says. “l don’t want to get into the debate of the bloggers. But we can say that we see evidence of climate change, and it is clear evidence. It is not something that we can debate because we have observed information.”
Climate models have grown accurate enough to closely mimic the significant changes that we’ve already witnessed, according to Georgakakos, which builds confidence that they can be a useful guide to what the region’s climate will do in the future. And what do they predict for the ACF watershed, including Lake Lanier?
Total annual precipitation is expected to stabilize, although it will come in spurts. “The wet will get wetter and the dry will get drier,” as Georgakakos puts it. Rare floods such as the 2009 disaster in Cobb County will occur more often.
Temperatures, however, are predicted to increase. “The conditions that you experience in South Georgia are going to migrate up toward Atlanta,” Georgakakos warns.
Higher temperatures will mean that water will evaporate more quickly; increasingly thirsty plants will also absorb more water. Soil moisture — already significantly lower than historic norms — will decrease as well, meaning agriculture will also need to draw more water for irrigation.
That leaves less water for other human uses and for fish and other aquatic life. The research predicts that water levels in Lake Lanier will fall significantly lower than they did in the crisis of a few years ago, and will do so much more often.
“For whatever reason, climate change is happening,” Georgakakos concludes. And the potential impacts on our water supply, energy production, agricultural industries and environment go well beyond the early departure of azalea blossoms.
– Jay Bookman