U.S. Department of Commerce


Date of this Version



In: Climate Science Special Report: A Sustained Assessment Activity of the U.S. Global Change Research Program [Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, D.J. Dokken, B.C. Stewart, and T.K. Maycock (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA (2017), pp. 405-442.


U.S. government work.


1. Changes in land use and land cover due to human activities produce physical changes in land surface albedo, latent and sensible heat, and atmospheric aerosol and greenhouse gas concentrations. The combined effects of these changes have recently been estimated to account for 40% ± 16% of the human-caused global radiative forcing from 1850 to present day (high confidence). As a whole, the terrestrial biosphere (soil and plants) is a net “sink” for carbon (drawing down carbon from the atmosphere), and this sink has steadily increased since 1980 (very high confidence). Because of the uncertainty in the trajectory of land cover, the possibility of the land becoming a net carbon source cannot be excluded (very high confidence).

2. Climate change and induced changes in the frequency and magnitude of extreme events (e.g., droughts, floods, and heat waves) have led to large changes in plant community structure with subsequent effects on the biogeochemistry of terrestrial ecosystems. Uncertainties about how climate change will affect land cover change make it difficult to project the magnitude and sign of future climate feedbacks from land cover changes (high confidence).

3. Since 1901, regional averages of both the consecutive number of frost-free days and the length of the corresponding growing season have increased for the seven contiguous U.S. regions used in this assessment. However, there is important variability at smaller scales, with some locations actually showing decreases of a few days to as much as one to two weeks. Plant productivity has not increased commensurate with the increased number of frost-free days or with the longer growing season due to plant-specific temperature thresholds, plant–pollinator dependence, and seasonal limitations in water and nutrient availability (very high confidence). Future consequences of changes to the growing season for plant productivity are uncertain.

4. Recent studies confirm and quantify that surface temperatures are higher in urban areas than in surrounding rural areas for a number of reasons, including the concentrated release of heat from buildings, vehicles, and industry. In the United States, this urban heat island effect results in daytime temperatures 0.9°–7.2°F (0.5°–4.0°C) higher and nighttime temperatures 1.8°– 4.5°F (1.0°–2.5°C) higher in urban areas, with larger temperature differences in humid regions (primarily in the eastern United States) and in cities with larger and denser populations. The urban heat island effect will strengthen in the future as the structure, spatial extent, and population density of urban areas change and grow (high confidence).