The University of Arizona

Assessing Climate Impacts

By Joe Abraham | The University of Arizona | June 16, 2009

As a result of increasing greenhouse gases, the climate of the past is less likely to serve as a guide for future climate. Government, community, and business leaders are increasingly recognizing this and the need to plan for and adapt to the impacts of climate change, including prolonged drought, increased wildfire risk, floods, heat waves, and reduced mountain snowpack. Assessing climate change impacts helps organizations gain a better sense of how climate change poses a risk to them 1,2 and develop a strategy for adapting to climate change.

photo of a muddy flood

Heavy rainfall events in the desert Southwest can cause floods that damage roadways and create risks for motorists and people.
Credit: ©Sandra Henderson,

For example, information about the effects of warmer temperatures and changing precipitation patterns may prompt state and federal agencies responsible for managing large tracts of public land to study which plants are most susceptible to extinction, resulting in the development of strategies that help those plants migrate as the climate changes. Similarly, civil engineers and hydrologists who are responsible for ensuring the future availability of water to cities and farms may be able to identify and avoid future shortages by phasing in additional conservation measures.

Determining cause-effect relationships between climate and impacts, such as increases in temperature and greater landscape watering demand, is valuable but often not easy. Climate impact assessments include reviewing scientific studies and syntheses of research on future impacts, conducting additional impact assessment research, and investigating impacts from recent climate variability and events like droughts and floods. Links to resources for these tasks are described below.

The Southwest Climate Change Network Web site includes an assessment of climate change impacts for the Southwest U.S. The assessments on this Web site will be updated periodically as new research is published. Sources are referenced at the bottom of each page and are linked to the Network library, which provides more information, including links to electronic documents.

Additional scientific impact assessment reports have been produced for some or all of western North America. Some of these assessment reports focus on how climate may affect specific sectors such as water resources, forests, and transportation. New assessments will be added as they become available.

In some cases, a review of impact assessments may suffice, while in other cases, you might need to conduct additional research or interpret results of climate models

Interviewing or surveying staff and managers is another useful way to identify past climate impacts. Other resources include:

  • partner organizations
  • local or regional newspapers
  • community groups
  • university researchers
  • government agencies

Information about past impacts then can be compared to climate and other environmental data that characterize climate variability and extremes. Such data may be available from within your organization or may be obtained from official sources, including the Western Regional Climate Center, the U.S. Geological Survey, or the National Weather Service.

Related Links

UK Climate Impacts Programme Local Climate Impacts Profile guide for local governments and organizations assessing past and future climate impacts
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  1. Fussel, H.M. 2007. Adaptation planning for climate change: concepts, assessment approaches, and key lessons. Sustainability Science. 2(2): 265–275.
  2. U.K. Climate Impacts Programme. LCLIP: a local climate impacts profile. U.K. Climate Impacts Programme. Website accessed June 25, 2009.