With effects of climate change becoming more apparent in recent years, an ever-growing body of research has emerged to quantify, understand, model and predict the risks associated with the phenomenon.

But within that field, said Woodwell Climate Research Center climate risk director Christopher Schwalm, the focus has always been on global climatic trends.

“It has to be done globally, because Co2 does not respect international boundaries,” he said. “But nobody really lives in a global climate. We all live in regional climates, in highly local climates.”

Mr. Schwalm and his team are aiming to change that view, working to adapt global climate models to the local level and help officials prepare for how global trends may impact their communities. Recently, the group completed a Martha’s Vineyard climate risk assessment, looking at how a two-degree increase in global temperatures could impact several climatic factors on-Island.  

“We’re trying to translate what that two-degree world means down to the level of a zip code,” he said, in an interview with the Gazette.

The assessment was developed after conversations with regional and town planners on the Vineyard, Mr. Schwalm said.

Based in Woods Hole, Mr. Schwalm and his team work on a range of projects quantifying climate risk, from asset management to geopolitical security. The Vineyard risk assessment, he said, is part of their philanthropic effort to bring research to communities across the world, from New England to Brazil to West Africa.

“There are globally a little over four million communities,” he said, yet many high-profile climate reports tend to focus on global impacts and trends. “It’s a huge need to be able to have this notion of level setting at the community level, as opposed to at this more macro level which is more typical,” he said.

The first step in working through a local risk assessment, Mr. Schwalm said, is consulting local planners and officials. After conducting meetings with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and town officials, the Woodwell team settled on four topics for study: drought, rainfall, storms and wildfires.

Drawing broadly on climate modeling and research, Woodwell was able to quantify increased risk for the phenomenon. The likelihood of a major rainfall event, for instance, is expected to be five times higher by the end of the century, while drought risk is likely to rise from 8.5 per cent to 13 per cent in the next 50 years, and 26 per cent in the next 100.

“It’s a simultaneous kind of one-two punch, where there’s going to be both more rain as well as more droughts,” Mr. Schwalm said. “The reason this happens is because the amount of rain is going to fall in more concentrated bursts,” he explained, resulting in extended drier periods between major precipitation events.

Researchers also pulled from local resiliency planning efforts, such as the recent Dukes County Community Wildfire Protection Plan, in their work, building on those plans with insights from climate modeling.

Using information from that plan and from their risk assessment research, the group determined that the number of days with high wildfire danger will increase by 44 per cent in the next 50 years, and by 94 per cent by the end of the century.

It is that future-tense planning that Mr. Schwalm said they hope to encourage with their risk assessments program, arming local planners with tools to manage the risks of global climate change.

“We don’t show any inclination, and by we I mean humanity writ large, of actually bending the emissions curve downwards. So, this is very much where we’re going now,” he said.

If change is coming, then communities have to start reckoning with that change, he said.

“You would check the weather app before you go for a bike ride, before you go to a picnic, before you decide to go fishing,” he said. “That is what we would like to establish with looking at the climate, so before you do any kind of future decision...you will be slowly but surely be convinced that it’s a good idea to check the climate.”