Publisher’s Note: Throughout history (or what we know of it) there have been extreme weather patterns that have dramatically affected life on Earth. What caused them? Who was responsible? Were they man-made or made by Mother Nature? Today there is great debate concerning climate change and global warming. While we contend that pouring trillions of tons of chemicals and toxic substances into the air, water and earth will deleteriously impact all living things, The Trends Research Institute takes no position on climate change or whether the wild swings in weather patterns are part of a natural cycle or have some other cause. What the institute does is identify how the current climate trends are evolving and analyze what areas will be most affected and how. In this piece, we do just that.
You’re familiar with the headlines: Blizzards, tornadoes, torrential rains, floods, droughts and rising temperatures are, after all, the new normal. But new metrics and scientific analyses that show the pace of change is accelerating and the most severe impact of these changes will be hitting regions of the US sooner and harder than previously forecast.
On May 6, the Obama administration released the Third National Climate Assessment, a dour inventory of woes that already are befalling the US because of a disrupted climate: a greater frequency of intense weather, accentuated by powerful, damaging storms, and average temperatures rising 6º–7ºF over the next few decades compared to late 20th-century norms.
Within days, the report was punctuated by new studies confirming the irreversible collapse of western Antarctica’s ice sheet. Scientists now say that the glacier’s slide into the sea is accelerating as warmer and warmer water eats away more and more of the sheet’s underbelly. The collapse is forecast to raise sea levels by between two and four feet and do it faster than predicted: instead of taking several centuries for the oceans to rise that much, as previously forecast, some researchers now say we could see Wall Street’s financiers ankle-deep in water by the end of the next century.
But other areas will be hit harder and sooner — and they’ll need more than Gucci galoshes to cope.
Southeastern US. Temperatures are forecast to rise by 4ºF to 8ºF, with interior areas warming more than the coasts, where most of the region’s population lives. Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, and Florida’s Palm Coast and Fort Myers–Cape Coral stretch are among the 10 fastest-growing residential areas in the US However, seas along the southeast coast which have risen an average of eight inches in the last 100 years could see triple that rise by the end of the century. The coast is gradually disappearing under the feet of the people flocking to settle there.
While oceans creep inland, inland water evaporates. The region is in the grip of a worsening, long-term freshwater shortage that already has set off turf battles among three states. (See “Tapped Out and Running Dry,” Trends Journal, Summer 2013.)
Eroding beaches and evaporating water endanger the region’s tourist industry, which hosts more than 120 million visitors each year and accounts for at least 15 percent of the economy. (Florida and Louisiana together draw 115 million tourists annually.) Sea-level rise not only erases beaches but also the businesses and jobs that depend on those visitors.
Those aren’t the only jobs and industries in danger. Much of the US petrochemical industry, including many of the nation’s oil refineries, is rooted along Louisiana’s endangered coast. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina shut down 70 to 90 percent of oil and gas production and took three million barrels a day of refined oil out of the economy. These kinds of disruptions, though on a smaller scale, can be expected to increase.
Great Plains. The central plains already struggle with extremes: temperatures of minus-70ºF have been recorded in Montana and 121ºF in North Dakota. Now it gets worse: the number of days above 100ºF in southern areas is forecast to more than double by 2050, even under the best-case scenarios. A similar increase is due in the northern plains for days above 95ºF. Impacts include more water evaporation from pastures and cropland; more heat stress on livestock, crops, and people; and greater demands for electricity to run air conditioners and water pumps.
The growing season will be longer, but the region’s growing water shortage negates most of the benefit. By 2050, dry spells should be about five days longer across the region than they were during the last quarter of the 20th century. Also, the region is bifurcating: the southern stretch will be dryer and the north wetter. Unfortunately, the added moisture up north is most likely to come in the form of winter snows and spring rains, boosting the likelihood of seasonal flooding.
Southwest. Warmer weather here raises the chance of wildfires, which are forecast to burn twice as much of the southern Rockies and northern California in the years ahead. Burning off vegetation from hilly areas, such as in much of southern California, raises the odds of mudslides. Heat also unleashes more pests, such as the bark beetle, which has killed millions of acres of conifers from New Mexico into Canada in recent years.
As greater heat raises demands for air conditioning, the odds of a cascading power blackouts rise. Such an incident in 2011 began with an 11-minute outage that ultimately left San Diego in the dark for 12 hours, shut down a sewage treatment plant, and dumped almost two million gallons of untreated sewage near area beaches.
An even greater issue in this hottest and driest region of the US is water. The Southwest depends heavily on snowmelt for its water and less snow is falling now; the region’s river basins have seen as much as 37% less water during the current drought. California already needs to spend an estimated $4.6 billion to upgrade its water systems to meet current needs; to cope with future water crises, expenses for expanding wastewater treatment and recycling and desalination of seawater likely will be added.
Alaska and Hawaii. In short, Alaska is melting and Hawaii is sinking. As glaciers recede and winters grow shorter, Alaska’s entire ecosystem is in flux, with forests toppling out of the thawing permafrost, growing seasons lengthening, and fisheries and wildlife habitats undergoing stark changes. Polar bears are already on the verge of extinction and greater stress is affecting Alaska’s iconic caribou herds. Hawaii faces rising seas, greater coastal erosion, and a probable shortage of fresh water on many islands. For the first time, forecasters expect more people to leave Hawaii in future decades than to migrate to it.
THREATS ACROSS THE GLOBE
Among the world’s top — or bottom — 10 countries at risk:
• Say goodbye to Bangladesh. This is a country made out of a river delta with 80 percent of its land in a floodplain. Rising seas, more frequent storms, heat, and droughts could drive 30 million people from the country during this century.
• North Korea, already in a perpetual famine, could see its crop production become even less reliable as rising ocean temperatures spark more frequent typhoons and torrential rains. Drought and hunger was an underlying cause of the ongoing revolt against Syria’s authoritarian rulers; while analysts don’t forecast a climate-
driven revolution here, greater social dissatisfaction could provoke desperate responses from an already irrational regime.
• Central Africa holds the greatest concentration of countries and people that are feeling climate change’s upheaval. Most of the population lives on subsistence farming in areas where water is already hard to come by. Heat and droughts are worsening and people here have few means to adapt. Migration in search of arable land or jobs in cities could ignite ethnic conflicts and destabilize already precarious governments.
• Afghanistan, warring relentlessly for 40 years, has no infrastructure to manage water through the more erratic rains and snowpacks predicted or to deal with the health impacts of warmer temperatures, which already have been blamed for an epidemic of malaria. With four people in five working in subsistence farming, hotter weather and more frequent droughts also endangers the food supply and the livelihoods of millions.
(For a country-by-country ranking of vulnerability to climate change, see the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index at www.gain.org.)
SHARP LEARNING CURVE AHEAD
As a society, we haven’t yet begun to imagine how we’ll live in this new world. But some of us are facing that question sooner than others.
Coastal dwellers — who number 40 percent of the world’s population and more than half of all Americans — face more than wet socks. Warmer seas lead to more algal blooms, a cause of various ills including ciguatera fish poisoning, the most common fish-borne human illness worldwide. Seafood-caused illnesses are moving north with warming water temperatures and the season for these illnesses has been reported to be starting earlier and ending later.
Of course, coast residents face wet socks, too: In Miami Beach, the year’s highest tides rise up through storm drains and flood streets. The city is investing $38 million over two years to lay drainage pipes along a busy highway to keep it above water. Such projects, and expenses, will become more common in coastal settlements in years ahead.
Rising ocean temperatures already are causing more frequent and more intense storms. By one estimate, New York City now faces storms that will send water well above its seawalls not every 100 years, as was the case in the 19th century, but every four or five. A rising sea will require expensive, disruptive adjustments to infrastructure in coastal towns and cities — including the US’s petrochemical corridor along Louisiana’s coast, which also hosts the 54-mile-long Port of Louisiana, the highest-volume port in the western hemisphere. Even if undertaken, these defensive construction efforts may not succeed in the face of accelerating coastal erosion. Rising seas also worsen the infiltration of brackish water into fresh-water drinking supplies in coastal cities.
The alternative: Leave. The Pacific island nation of Vanuatu is already packing while it tries to persuade Australia and New Zealand to make a home for its residents as rising seas eat away not only its tourism trade and its coconut-based export economy, but also its land. Administrators of the Marshall Islands and Bougainville, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea, have warned that their countries face a similar fate. So far, no country — or the rest of the world — has stepped up to address the problem of environmental refugees.
That choice isn’t confined to island countries. People owning homes on US barrier islands and coastal waterways are seeing their federally subsidized property insurance disappear. Many now face the choice of abandoning their homesites or paying annual premiums equivalent to a year’s salary. (Florida already subsidizes property insurance for homes and businesses in high-risk areas.) Municipalities are wrestling with the idea that, for the first time, building may be forbidden in what have long been developed parts of our shores.
Many farmers growing vast swathes of wheat, corn, and soy across the US Great Plains — or producing much of the nation’s fruits and vegetables in California’s fertile valleys — face similarly bleak choices. The confluence of rising temperatures, frequent droughts, and water scarcity dim the profession’s outlook. Farmers already are implementing water-saving technologies and researching ways to deliver hardier strains of crops, but those innovations likely won’t be able to sustain current levels of production. (This year in California, hundreds of thousands of acres are lying fallow because water simply isn’t there.)
Yields will increase to the north and decrease to the south and growing seasons will lengthen overall. However, in addition to the weather, producers and agriscientists face another challenge: Early studies indicate that grains and lentils are less nutritious when grown in carbon-rich atmospheres.
ADAPTING WILL BRING OPPORTUNITES
Small farmers are more agile and may fare better than large enterprises. Vermont’s small farmers are investing millions to lay drainage pipes under their fields to carry off the excess water from rainstorms that otherwise might pool underground and drown their crops — an investment that will pay for itself in the near term. Other small growers are experimenting with different strains of produce able to thrive in more extreme conditions. More farmers and hobby growers will cut their risk of loss by raising produce in greenhouses with hydroponic systems that use little water and recycle much of what they do use.
Urbanites also face multiple challenges if they stay where they are. Pavement and tarred roofs absorb heat, aggravating the effects of higher temperatures that can prompt health emergencies: 2003’s European heat wave killed 35,000 people, most in cities. Multi-family dwellings often lack the four-sided air circulation that individual houses have, making it harder to cool apartments. Heat waves can lead to power outages, shutting off fans and air conditioning and making city life much more difficult.
Poor people in cities have fewer of the resources needed to cope with a more extreme climate. They often live in less desirable, cheaper parts of town more exposed to damage from weather events, a point illustrated by Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. Low-income folks also often live in high-crime areas and may be unwilling to evacuate their homes — or sometimes even to open their windows — in emergencies, leaving them vulnerable to power outages, weather-related injuries, or heatstroke. Warmer air also leads to a greater accumulation of ground-level ozone in urban areas, raising the chance that more people will head to emergency rooms due to respiratory distress. The demands on public assistance and social safety nets are likely to increase in a hotter, drier future.
The shifting climate will bring changes to us all. Property owners everywhere should expect insurance rates to increase, in part to subsidize catastrophic payouts in hard-hit regions. Demand for public utilities such as water and electricity will rise faster than supply grows, raising prices. Processed foods could change character as manufacturers look for alternatives to wheat, corn, and soy, which could be less reliably available — or prices of these foods could rise if the staple grain crops suddenly must be imported.
But change brings opportunity. Regional agriculture and small farmers will fare better as they respond to localized opportunities that mass-produced foods miss. (See “A Fortune in Food”, Trends Journal, Autumn 2010.) Cost pressures on water departments and electric generat
ion companies will force them to more aggressively promote conservation to offset demand. As the cost of photovoltaic panels continues to fall, more people will install them to reduce the need for fossil-fueled power as well as to ensure more varied sources of electricity. New products and businesses that keep us comfortable, conserve resources, and help us remain independent and resilient — such as heat pumps driven by solar power — will find growing markets.
Ultimately, none of us will be able to escape the effects of an altered climate — or ignore its opportunities.