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New climate change report suggests dire effects in Mid-Atlantic

Changes in seasonal precipitation patterns in North America. (U.S. Global Change Research Program)

Changes in sea­son­al pre­cip­i­ta­tion pat­terns in North Amer­i­ca. (U.S. Glob­al Change Research Program)

MECHANICSVILLE, Va. — “Human-induced cli­mate change is a real­i­ty, not only in remote polar regions and in small, trop­i­cal islands, but in every place around the coun­try — in our own back­yards. Cli­mate change is hap­pen­ing. It’s hap­pen­ing now.”

So said Dr. Jane Lubchen­co, under­sec­re­tary of Com­merce for Oceans & Atmos­phere and NOAA Admin­is­tra­tor, at a White House news con­fer­ence Tues­day announc­ing the release of the report Glob­al Cli­mate Change Impacts in the Unit­ed States. The report doc­u­ments evi­dence of cli­mate change effects in the Unit­ed States today, dis­cuss­es pro­ject­ed effects over the next cen­tu­ry, and offers a break­down by region — includ­ing the Mid-Atlantic.

The report con­tains lit­tle infor­ma­tion new to those who have fol­lowed the cli­mate change debate over the years, it marked the first time since Pres­i­dent George W. Bush’s inau­gu­ra­tion in 2001 that the White House has unequiv­o­cal­ly stat­ed that humans are dri­ving much of the cli­mate changes doc­u­ment­ed today.

Jonathan Hoek­stra, direc­tor of the Cli­mate Change Pro­gram at The Nature Con­ser­van­cy, sum­ma­rized the impor­tance of the report.

“This report paints the clear­est pic­ture yet of the risks that cli­mate change pos­es to the Unit­ed States — our infra­stuc­ture, our water sup­plies, agri­cul­ture, ener­gy, health, and ecosys­tems,” Hoek­stra said. “Impacts have often seemed far off and in some­one else’s back­yard.  No more.  If we don’t take deci­sive action to reduce green­house gas emis­sions, too many of these risks will become realities.”

Aaron Huer­tas of the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists offered a sim­i­lar assessment.

“While the stud­ies cit­ed in the report aren’t new, the assess­ment process is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to iden­ti­fy the most impor­tant effects cli­mate change could have on the Unit­ed States,” Huer­tas said. “If any­thing, this report served to fur­ther under­score the dif­fer­ences between a future with unchecked cli­mate change and one in which emis­sions — and result­ing tem­per­a­ture increas­es — are great­ly reduced.”

The report is required by the Glob­al Change Research Act of 1990. The law estab­lished the U.S. Glob­al Change Research Pro­gram and man­dat­ed that nation­al assess­ment reports detail­ing cur­rent and poten­tial cli­mate change effects on the U.S. be pro­duced every four years. The first report was pro­duced by the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion in 2000, but the Bush admin­is­tra­tion — not­ed for its skep­ti­cism on cli­mate change mat­ters and alle­ga­tions of try­ing to muz­zle sci­en­tists research­ing cli­mate change issues (alle­ga­tions backed by doc­u­ments, by the way) — was sued by envi­ron­men­tal groups its fail­ure to pro­duce the next sched­uled assess­ment in 2004.

The Bush admin­is­tra­tion lost. It released a first draft of what became the cur­rent report in 2008 as ordered by the court.

Among the over­all find­ings of the report, it says that aver­age tem­per­a­ture rise in the Unit­ed States has fol­lowed the glob­al trend, with a 1.5°F increase since 1990 and an addi­tion­al increase of 2°F to 11.5°F by 2100. With­out the human con­tri­bu­tion in terms of green­house gas emis­sions and oth­er tem­per­a­ture dri­ves, glob­al aver­age tem­per­a­tures would have cooled slight­ly since the 1950s. The high­er tem­per­a­tures will lead to decreased demand for ener­gy for heat­ing, but increased demand for ener­gy for cool­ing. Urban res­i­dents are very vul­ner­a­ble to heat-relat­ed ill­ness­es and deaths as a result of ris­ing temperatures.

Projected number of days with temperatures greater than 100 degrees by the end of the century. (U.S. Global Change Research Program)

Pro­ject­ed num­ber of days with tem­per­a­tures greater than 100 degrees by the end of the cen­tu­ry. (U.S. Glob­al Change Research Program)

South­ern states will see a decrease in pre­cip­i­ta­tion amount, north­ern states will see an increase. Sea­son­al pre­cip­i­ta­tion pat­terns will change, too, with almost all of the Low­er 48 states see­ing a decrease in sum­mer pre­cip­i­ta­tion amount. Much of the nation has already seen an increase in the fre­quen­cy and inten­si­ty of heavy pre­cip­i­ta­tion events. Changes in pre­cip­i­ta­tion pat­terns will affect water sup­plies and hydropow­er pro­duc­tion in some regions.

Ecosys­tem effects are already being felt. Among those effects are changes in ecosys­tem func­tions such as decom­po­si­tion and nutri­ent cycling, in geo­graph­ic dis­tri­b­u­tion of species, in tim­ing of migra­tions, in dis­tur­bance (such as wild­fire) regimes, in pest and dis­ease out­breaks, and in inva­sions by non-native species. Agri­cul­tur­al ecosys­tems will be sim­i­lar­ly affected.

The Mid-Atlantic region is split in the report: Delaware, the Dis­trict of Colum­bia, Mary­land, New Jer­sey, New York, and Penn­syl­va­nia are in what the report describes as the North­east, while North Car­oli­na and Vir­ginia are in the South­east. What are the key find­ings for the region? It depends.

“It depends on who you are and what you do,” Huer­tas said “Peo­ple who plan on deriv­ing much of their income from agri­cul­tur­al prod­ucts such as cran­ber­ries and some types of apples need to think about a long-term plan for switch­ing to oth­er crops or see­ing reduced yields as frost days decline. Some ski resorts in the North­east will be ten­able, while oth­ers might not be. Coastal cities espe­cial­ly will have to watch out for sea lev­el rise. And cities such as Philadel­phia and New York will have to deal with poten­tial sewage sys­tem over­flows due to high­er pre­cip­i­ta­tion. There are many more exam­ples, but the basic nature of cli­mate change is that it alters fun­da­men­tal aspects of our life and soci­ety we take for granted.”

In the north­ern por­tion of the Mid-Atlantic, win­ter tem­per­a­tures have risen twice as much as the annu­al aver­age — 4°F as opposed to 2°F since 1970. More fre­quent hot days (over 90°F), longer grow­ing sea­sons, increased inci­dence of heavy pre­cip­i­ta­tion events and a shift in win­ter pre­cip­i­ta­tion from snow to rain (lead­ing to ear­li­er melt of snow­pack) have been observed over much of the region. In the south­ern por­tion of the Mid-Atlantic, fall pre­cip­i­ta­tion has increased some­what, but sum­mer pre­cip­i­ta­tion has decreased —  lead­ing to an increased inci­dence of sum­mer drought the past three decades.

In the future, warmer con­di­tions will ren­der much of the region unsuit­able for crops long asso­ci­at­ed with it, such as apples, blue­ber­ries, and cran­ber­ries. The dairy indus­try will like­wise be adverse­ly affect­ed, as will the maple syrup indus­try as maple/beech/birch forests are dis­placed to the north by oak-hick­o­ry forests. The short­er win­ters and decreased snow­pack will like­wise adverse­ly affect the win­ter sports indus­try through­out the region.

Toward the south, high­er sum­mer tem­per­a­tures and low­er sum­mer pre­cip­i­ta­tion will trig­ger a rise in heat-relat­ed ill­ness­es, high­er heat index­es and greater demand for ener­gy to cool homes and busi­ness­es. Roads will be affect­ed, as the hot­ter tem­per­a­tures will lead to more fre­quent buck­ling of pave­ment on roads and pos­si­ble warp­ing of rails lead­ing to derail­ments. As soil mois­ture is deplet­ed, crops will suffer.

Climate change will likely lead to expansion of Chesapeake Bay dead zones. (U.S. Global Change Research Program)

Cli­mate change will like­ly lead to expan­sion of Chesa­peake Bay dead zones. (U.S. Glob­al Change Research Program)

Coastal areas will have to cope with ris­ing sea lev­els, which con­tribute to shore­line ero­sion and loss of coastal wet­lands and real estate. Coastal devel­op­ment will be more vul­ner­a­ble to high­er storm surges. Ris­ing water tem­per­a­tures will like­ly trig­ger an increase in the fre­quen­cy and inten­si­ty of trop­i­cal storm sys­tems. Increased car­bon diox­ide in the atmos­phere is mak­ing the oceans more acid, which makes it more dif­fi­cult for shell­fish to extract from the water the car­bon­ate min­er­als they use to make their shells. The com­bi­na­tion of high­er water tem­per­a­tures and increased spring runoff will lead the expan­sion of oxy­gen-deplet­ed “dead zones” in coastal waters like the Chesa­peake Bay. Warmer waters will also lead to a north­ward shift in the geo­graph­ic dis­tri­b­u­tions of some marine organ­isms — such shifts are already under way.

Despite the dire out­look for the region, Huer­tas finds room for hope.

“I can tell you that the Mid-Atlantic region has been a leader in adopt­ing renew­able elec­tric­i­ty stan­dards, clean car stan­dards and even a cap-and-trade sys­tem for pow­er plants,” said Huer­tas. “Mem­bers of Con­gress are now con­sid­er­ing cli­mate and ener­gy leg­is­la­tion based in large part on suc­cess North­east states and Mid-Atlantic states have had with this type of pol­i­cy. Hope­ful­ly, the Unit­ed States can take the same lead­er­ship role in the world as the North­east and Mid-Atlantic states have assumed in the U.S.”

— David M. Lawrence

EDITOR’S NOTE: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this sto­ry was post­ed with­out the com­ment by Jonathan Hoek­stra of The Nature Con­ser­van­cy, who had not have time to respond by the time of the orig­i­nal post. The sto­ry was revised to incor­po­rate his statement.

DISCLOSURE: The edi­tor, David M. Lawrence, occa­sion­al­ly vol­un­teers for The Nature Con­ser­van­cy, the orga­ni­za­tion for whom the source Jonathan Hoek­stra works.

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