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NCA Education Resources for the Southwest Region

"Increased heat, drought, and insect outbreaks, all linked to climate change, have increased wildfires. Declining water supplies, reduced agricultural yields, health impacts in cities due to heat, and flooding and erosion in coastal areas are additional concerns." National Climate Assessment, 2014

The National Climate Assessment summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States, now and in the future. This report collects, integrates, and assesses observations and research from around the country, helping us to see what is actually happening and understand what it means for our lives, our livelihoods, and our future. It is important that these findings and response options be shared broadly to inform citizens and communities across our nation. Climate change presents a major challenge for society. This report advances our understanding of that challenge and the need for the American people to prepare for and respond to its far-reaching implications.


The National Climate Assessment regional resources for educators is written, edited, and moderated by each team of contributors. Posts reflect the views of the team themselves and not necessarily, NOAA, or USGCRP.

Mark McCaffrey - National Center for Science Education
Minda Berbeco - National Center for Science Education
Rachel Connolly - National Center for Science Education

Through its Our Changing Climate section and Climate Science Supplement sections, the NCA contains information that will help educators and students gain a deeper understanding of climate science. This content will support the integration of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) into science education.  The NGSS also asks educators to raise the teaching of engineering design to the same level as scientific inquiry. In the Adaptation and Infrastructure sections of the NCA, educators can find information on climate-related problems and solutions, including those that draw on engineering design. The Decision Support section provides information on how decision makers across the country are using climate information to prepare for the impacts of climate change that affect where they work and live.

This webpage features key figures, related resources, and lesson plans, videos and visualizations reviewed by CLEAN for all the NCA key messages for the region.  The page contains information that will help educators and students gain a deeper understanding of climate science and the implications of climate variability and climate change for Southwest region.

NCA Southwest Region Report and Highlights



Región Suroeste (Spanish translation)

NCA Key Message 1: Reduced Snowpack and Streamflows

visit the full Reduced Snowpack and Streamflows page

Snowpack and streamflow amounts are projected to decline in parts of the Southwest, decreasing surface water supply reliability for cities, agriculture, and ecosystems.

1. Guiding Questions

  • How are farmers, water utilities and state agencies in the region planning to address drought and long-term reduction in water resources?
  • Does your community have a drought or water conservation plan? If not, what are the elements of a good plan?
  • What sorts of job opportunities could emerge related to water conservation and drought planning?

2. Key figures

Projected Snow Water Equivalent
Snow water equivalent (SWE) refers to the amount of water held in a volume of snow, which depends on the density of the snow and other factors. Figure shows projected snow water equivalent for the Southwest, as a percentage of 1971-2000, assuming continued increases in global emissions (A2 scenario). The size of bars is in proportion to the amount of snow each state contributes to the regional total; thus, the bars for Arizona are much smaller than those for Colorado, which contributes the most to region-wide snowpack. Declines in peak SWE are strongly correlated with early timing of runoff and decreases in total runoff. For watersheds that depend on snowpack to provide the majority of the annual runoff, such as in the Sierra Nevada and in the Upper Colorado and Upper Rio Grande River Basins, lower SWE generally translates to reduced reservoir water storage. (Data from Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

Projected Temperature Increases
Maps show projected changes (temperature) in average, as compared to 1971-1999. Top row shows projections assuming heat-trapping gas emissions continue to rise (A2). Bottom row shows projections assuming substantial reductions in emissions (B1). (Figure source: adapted from Kunkel et al. 2013).

3. Other Resources

EPA Page on Snowpack Trends in the Western US, 1955-2013
This EPA page and text demonstrates changes in the snowpack from 1955-2013 in the Western US (not solely the Southwest).

4. Lesson Plans

Colorado River Supply
This activity addresses climate change impacts that affect all states that are part of the Colorado River Basin and are dependent on its water (many southwestern states). Students examine available data, the possible consequences of changes to various user groups, and suggest solutions to adapt to these changes.

Level: 11/12th grade, College Lower and Upper. Direct Link

Snowpack: Decadal Averages Map
This is an interactive map of California and the Sierra Nevada mountains, showing projected variations in water stored in snowpack, from 1950 to 2090, assuming low or high emission scenarios over that period of time. Interactive can be adjusted to show different months of the year and various climate models, graphed by site.

Level: Middle (6-8), High School (9-12), College Lower. Direct link

NCA Key Message 2: Threats to Agriculture

visit the full Threats to Agriculture page

The Southwest produces more than half of the nation’s high-value specialty crops, which are irrigation-dependent and particularly vulnerable to extremes of moisture, cold, and heat. Reduced yields from increasing temperatures and increasing competition for scarce water supplies will displace jobs in some rural communities.

1. Guiding Questions

  • What are the key agricultural products in your region?
  • How are they currently being impacted by changing climate and what is being done to prepare for future changes?
  • What opportunities are there to change practices to become more resilient and sustainable?


2. Key figures

Longer Frost-free Season Increases Stress on Crops
The frost-free season is defined as the period between the last occurrence of 32°F in spring and the first occurrence of 32°F in the subsequent fall. The chart shows significant increases in the number of consecutive frost-free days per year in the past three decades compared to the 1901-2010 average. Increased frost-free season length, especially in already hot and moisture-stressed regions like the Southwest, is projected to lead to further heat stress on plants and increased water demands for crops. Higher temperatures and more frost-free days during winter can lead to early bud burst or bloom of some perennial plants, resulting in frost damage when cold conditions occur in late spring (see Ch. 6: Agriculture); in addition, with higher winter temperatures, some agricultural pests can persist year-round, and new pests and diseases may become established.77 (Figure source: Hoerling et al. 20135).

Precipitation Changes in Percent Under Two Emissions Scenarios
Spring precipitation change for 2080-2099 compared to 1961-1979 under two emissions scenarios. High confidence in the projected changes is indicated by hatched areas. Source: USGCRP (2009)

3. Other Resources

Southwest Climate Change Assessment Report chapter on Agriculture and Ranching

USDA report: Climate Change and Agriculture in the US- Effects and Adaptation
Not specific to the southwest, but relevant if looking for detailed info on the topic

Op-Ed by Val Dolcini, the State Executive Director of the USDA Farm Service Agency
Contains some good information about the effects of drought on farming/ranching in CA, but is not scientific (no citations, etc.).

Big Facts on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security
Interactive infographic, found via Climate Access website, includes sources

Climate Change Worsens Drought
Climate Access website

4. Lesson Plans

California and the Biosphere
In this activity, students investigate aspects of change in the biosphere of California's Central Valley. Analyzing data over both space and time, they begin to tie together some of the causes and effects of a variable and changing climate. The valley serves as a model environment that includes riverine, wetland, rural-agricultural, and urban regimes all with high water-dependencies and susceptibility to drought.

Level: High School Direct Link

5. Videos

Science for a Hungry World: Agriculture and Climate Change
This NASA video explores the relationship between climate and agriculture, including the variability of climate change impacts that may occur in different regions and the effects of population growth and higher demands for food in areas that already struggle to supply food for the people. The video highlights the need for accurate, continuous, and accessible data and computer models from NASA satellites to track and predict the challenges farmers face as they adjust to a changing climate.

Level: Middle, High School Direct Link

NCA Key Message 3: Increased Wildfire

visit the full Increased Wildfire page

Increased warming, drought, and insect outbreaks, all caused by or linked to climate change, have increased wildfires and impacts to people and ecosystems in the Southwest. Fire models project more wildfire and increased risks to communities across extensive areas.

1. Guiding Questions

  • Wildfire doesn’t only occur in forested regions. What are the wildfire risks in your region?
  • What is the history of wildfires in your area?
  • What groups are organized to mitigate and fight fires, and what jobs are associated with them?

2. Key figures

Forest Vulnerability to Changing Climate
The figure shows a conceptual climate envelope analysis of forest vulnerability under current and projected future ranges of variability in climate parameters (temperature and precipitation, or alternatively drought duration and intensity). Climate models project increasing temperatures across the U.S. in coming decades, but a range of increasing or decreasing precipitation depending on region. Episodic droughts (where evaporation far exceeds precipitation) are also expected to increase in duration and/or intensity (see Ch. 2: Our Changing Climate). The overall result will be increased vulnerability of forests to periodic widespread regional mortality events resulting from trees exceeding their physiological stress thresholds.3(Figure source: Allen et al. 2010 3).

3. Other Resources

Western US Forest Wildfires and Spring-Summer Temperature, and Timing of Spring Snowmelt
The relationship between wildfire frequency, temperature, and snowmelt from 1970-2005 (slightly outdated, but still relevant).

Western Wildfires and Climate Change
An infographic from the Union of Concerned Scientists found on Climate Access website

Southwest Climate Change Network fires page

4. Videos

Wildfires Out West
Video from cleanet- created by ClimateCentral, looks at the way climate conditions can affect vegetation in the West, and what influence this has on wildfires. Drought and rainfall can have very different wildfire outcomes, depending on vegetation type, extent, and location. Direct link through vimeo

NCA Key Message 4: Sea Level Rise and Coastal Damage

visit the full Sea Level Rise and Coastal Damage page

Flooding and erosion in coastal areas are already occurring even at existing sea levels and damaging some California coastal areas during storms and extreme high tides. Sea level rise is projected to increase as Earth continues to warm, resulting in major damage as wind-driven waves ride upon higher seas and reach farther inland.

1. Guiding Questions:

  • Even if you don’t live along the California coast, everyone in the Southwest is potentially impacted by sea level rise since many goods used in the region enter through California ports. What products in your community come through these ports and how might increased sea level rise lead to new job opportunities?
  • How might sea level rise impact the Central Valley of California, which grows many crops vital to the nation? (See USGS site for more: )

2. Key figures

Coastal Risks Posed by Sea Level Rise and High Tides
King tides, which typically happen twice a year as a result of a gravitational alignment of the sun, moon, and Earth, provide a preview of the risks rising sea levels may present along California coasts in the future. While king tides are the extreme high tides today, with projected future sea level rise, this level of water and flooding will occur during regular monthly high tides. During storms and future king tides, more coastal flooding and damage will occur. The King Tide Photo Initiative encourages the public to visually document the impact of rising waters on the California coast, as exemplified during current king tide events. Photos show water levels along the Embarcadero in San Francisco, California during relatively normal tides (top), and during an extreme high tide or “king tide” (bottom). (Photo credit: Mark Johnsson).

Past and Projected Changes in Global Sea Level
Estimated, observed, and possible future amounts of global sea level rise from 1800 to 2100, relative to the year 2000. Estimates from proxy data1 (for example, based on sediment records) are shown in red (1800-1890, pink band shows uncertainty), tide gauge data are shown in blue for 1880-2009,2 and satellite observations are shown in green from 1993 to 2012.3 The future scenarios range from 0.66 feet to 6.6 feet in 2100.4 These scenarios are not based on climate model simulations, but rather reflect the range of possible scenarios based on other scientific studies. The orange line at right shows the currently projected range of sea level rise of 1 to 4 feet by 2100, which falls within the larger risk-based scenario range. The large projected range reflects uncertainty about how glaciers and ice sheets will react to the warming ocean, the warming atmosphere, and changing winds and currents. As seen in the observations, there are year-to-year variations in the trend. (Figure source: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory).

3. Other Resources

Sea level rise in CA over the past century
Geologic and recent sea-level histories (from tide gauges and satellite altimetry) are combined with projections to 2100 based on climate models and empirical data. Modified with permission from Russell and Griggs (2012, Figure 2.1)

4. Lesson Plans

Global Climate Change and Sea Level Rise
In this activity, students will practice the steps involved in a scientific investigation as they learn why ice formations on land (and not those on water) will cause a rise in sea level upon melting. This is a discovery lesson in ice and water density and displacement of water by ice floating on the surface as it relates to global climate change.

Level: Middle Direct Link

How Does Melting Ice Affect Sea Level?
In this activity, students investigate how sea levels might rise when ice sheets and ice caps melt by constructing a pair of models and seeing the effects of ice melt in two different situations. Students should use their markers to predict the increase of water in each box before the ice melts.

Level: Intermediate (3-5), Middle, High School Direct Link

5. Videos

Sea-Level Rise for the Coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington
This video features Dr. Gary Griggs, scientist with the National Research Council (NRC) and professor at UCSC, reviewing highlights from the recently released report by the NRC about predictions for sea-level rise on the West Coast states. The video includes effective visualizations and animations of the effects of plate tectonics and sea-level rise on the West Coast. Direct link

Colorado and a Warming Planet
This video highlights a variety of current climate change research initiatives from scientists at the University of Colorado, Boulder. It describes the changing dynamics of Antarctic ice sheets and glaciers and the impacts of reduced Arctic sea ice on people, animals, and global albedo and sea levels, while providing a glimpse of the excitement of this field research through interviews and video clips of scientists in the field.

Level: Middle, High School, College Lower and Upper Direct Link

National Climate Assessment Coast
"We are a coastal country," says Susanne C. Moser, a convening lead author for the National Climate Assessment's Coasts chapter, with 94,000 miles of coastline and more than $1 trillion in coastal infrastructure. Coastal lifelines, such as water and energy infrastructure, and nationally important assets, such as ports, tourism, and fishing sites, all are increasingly vulnerable to sea level rise, storm surge, erosion, flooding, and related hazards.

NCA Key Message 5: Heat Threats to Health

visit the full Heat Threats to Health page

Projected regional temperature increases, combined with the way cities amplify heat, will pose increased threats and costs to public health in southwestern cities, which are home to more than 90% of the region’s population. Disruptions to urban electricity and water supplies will exacerbate these health problems.

1. Guiding Questions

  • What steps are being taken on a local level to prepare for heat events and possible disruptions to energy and water supplies?
  • What are ways that students and citizens can get involved to help communities become more heat-ready?

2. Key figures

Urban Heat and Public Health
The projected increase in heat waves in Southwest cities (Ch. 2: Our Changing Climate, Key Message 7) increases the chances that a chain of escalating effects could lead to serious increases in illness and death due to heat stress. The top of the figure provides some of the links in that chain, while the bottom of the figure provides adaptation and improved governance options that can reduce this vulnerability and improve the resilience of urban infrastructure and community residents.

3. Other Resources

This EPA guidebook provides critical information that local public health officials and others need to begin assessing their excessive heat events (EHE) vulnerability and developing and implementing EHE notification and response programs. 
As part of the President’s Climate Action Plan and ongoing efforts within the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), the Interagency Crosscutting Group on Climate Change and Human Health (CCHHG) and a subset of the Interagency National Climate Assessment Task Force (INCA) have initiated an interagency Special Report on the impacts of observed and projected climate change on human health in the United States.

4. Lesson Plans

Birds, Mosquitoes and Viruses
Resource for teachers, game for kids to play in order to learn about diseases and how global warming can affect transmission. Relevance- disease transmitting mosquitoes mentioned in key message 5. Middle School Level

Climate Change and Human Health
In this interactive, students explore, at their own pace, how global climate change may affect health issues. Issues include airborne diseases, developmental disorders, mental health disorders, vector-borne diseases and waterborne diseases.

High school/College Lower Level, Direct link

General Southwest Resources

Lesson Plans/Simulations applicable to all key messages

California Climate and the Atmosphere
In this 3-part lesson, students explore California climate and factors that are leading to changes within this climate system. Students begin by exploring California's climate and the state's topography. Next, they investigate coastal versus inland climate. Finally, they use My NASA Data to explore the effects of El Niño/La Niña on two locations found at the same latitude.

Parts 1 & 2- Middle School, High School, College Lower Levels

Part 3- Just High School and College Lower Levels

Local Climate Snapshots
This interactive visualization provides a clear, well-documented snapshot of current and projected values of several climate variables for local areas in California. The climate variables include observed and projected temperatures, projected snowpack, areas vulnerable to flooding due to sea level rise, and projected increase in wildfires. The projected values come from expert sources and well-established climate models.

Level: 9-12, College Lower Direct link