California Warming Attributed to Growth

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A new study by NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab says California's average temperature has risen by two degrees over the past half-century. While greenhouse gases are partly to blame, a researcher says California's warming is due mostly to increased development's changes to the natural landscape.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand.

It is another beautiful day here in Southern California, which may not be such a beautiful thing. The average temperature in California has risen by two degrees over the last half century; that is according a new study by NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab.

And as NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, scientists say that is enough to leave parts of the Golden State parched and brown.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: The old joke about Southern California not having weather isn't exactly accurate. Things have changed over the past 50 years.

Mr. WILLIAM PATZERT (Climatologist, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA): There is no doubt that the Golden State is heating up - anywhere between a degree and a half to two and a half degrees. And that's a lot.

DEL BARCO: Bill Patzert is a climatologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. He came up with the results with two colleagues after checking out more than 300 weather stations throughout the state. They compared temperatures with those recorded half a century ago.

Mr. PATZERT: In the last 50 years, we've had fewer frosts during the winter and certainly more extreme heat days and more heat waves and longer heat waves all across Southern California. And so definitely the growth industry here in California is going to be air conditioning.

DEL BARCO: Besides the Death Valley Desert, Patzert found the hottest parts of the state wherein urban and suburban areas at the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles. He says in L.A., temperatures have risen by as much as nine degrees at night since records were kept in 1878. And Patzert says while greenhouse gases are partly to blame, California's warming is due mostly to more and more development covering over the natural landscape.

Mr. PATZERT: That's suburban, urban, and agricultural growth. And so we've done an extreme makeover on the surface of California. In what was dry chaparral the heat that it would gain during the day would lose it at night. Now it's lawns, golf courses, shopping centers, freeways.

DEL BARCO: If you drive north from Los Angeles on the 5 freeway toward Magic Mountain, you'll see the kind of development Bill Patzert was talking about.

(Soundbite of hammer pounding)

DEL BARCO: Here along the mountain ridges, there are new housing projects being built all the time, new shopping centers, and new golf courses.

(Soundbite of golf course)

DEL BARCO: Matt McKey(ph) plays golf at the new housing development, where he lives in Valencia.

Mr. MATT MCKEY: Sometimes we reach over 100, 105 degrees out here, and it's kind of unbearable, you know.

DEL BARCO: On the golfing green, of McKey's neighbors, Rodney Beth(ph), says he's not so alarmed by the rising heat.

Mr. RODNEY BETH: You know, seems like at that rate of temperature change, you know, would be another couple of hundred years before it really made a difference. Anyway, I don't know - 100 versus 102, what's the difference?

DEL BARCO: Back at JPL, Bill Patzert wears one of his many Hawaiian shirts and talks about one of the few upsides of California's rising temperatures.

I hear you're a surfer.

(Soundbite of laughing)

DEL BARCO: So this heat wave might be good for you.

Mr. PATZERT: Well, you know, the ocean has warmed up one degree here in the last half century. The downside, of course, is that in the summer especially, with these higher temperatures and more frequent and longer heat waves, our air quality is really going down the toilet.

DEL BARCO: So Bill Patzert's message to Californians: lose those SUVs and cool it.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

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