Perusing the approximately 1,600 pages of the National Climate Assessment, one thing quickly becomes clear: climate change is here and it is impacting literally every aspect of our lives. Its impacts are varied, simultaneous, and cascading.
The report was released a week ago on November 23. It details the costly and accelerating consequences of increased global temperatures on the United States. The congressionally-mandated assessment is authored by hundreds of scientists, many from 13 different federal departments and agencies.
In it, scientists warn that without significant climate action and fewer fossil fuels, annual average global temperatures could increase by a staggering 9 degrees Fahrenheit — 5 degrees Celsius — or more by the end of this century compared to pre-industrial temperatures.
But what about the report’s other findings? Here are 10 facts about how climate change will impact various aspects of our lives, according to the National Climate Assessment.
1. Firefighting will cost billions
At the front of many people’s minds are the California wildfires this year. According to the NCA, climate change is estimated to be responsible for doubling the amount of forest area burned by wildfires between 1984 and 2015. And that number is only going to increase.
Under the report’s higher emissions scenario (RCP8.5) where temperatures rise un-checked — a likely scenario considering the current administration’s fondness for fossil fuels — the total cost for firefighting in the Southwest could reach $13 billion between 2006 and 2099. In this scenario, the report also expects the frequency of very large fires (those greater than 5,000 hectares) could triple.
And wildfires will be especially difficult for tribal communities, the assessment states, “due to a lack of fire-fighting resources, insufficient experienced internal staff, and remote locations.” Coordinating firefighting efforts is especially tricky for these communities too because it involves working across fire-prone areas with various jurisdictional controls.
2. Allergies will increase
Higher temperatures mean longer growing seasons in some areas, and with this comes longer pollen and allergy seasons. In fact, the average length of the growing season has increased by two weeks since the start of the 20th century, becoming slightly longer in the West than the East.
Ragweed, for example, responds to higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air by producing higher quantities of allergenic pollen. An increased prevalence of hay fever has also been linked to climate change. And, according to scientists, “climate-induced changes in oak pollen are projected to increase the number of asthma-related emergency department visits in the Northeast, Southwest, and Midwest.”
3. Playgrounds will get hotter
The science is clear that children are incredibly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change — and part of that danger stems from their playgrounds.
“Children are particularly susceptible to high heat and can be exposed through daily activities,” the report states.
As one image from the report shows, surface temperatures were measured using infrared thermography in one playground in Phoenix, Arizona in September 2014. On the left side, image A, a slide and dark rubber surface left exposed to the sun reached between 160 degrees Fahrenheit (71 degrees Celsius) and 180 degrees Fahrenheit (82 degrees Celsius). Image B shows black powder-covered steps reaching 136 degrees Fahrenheit (58 degrees Celsius) in the direct sunlight.
Put simply, higher temperatures could mean children’s safety is threatened even further.
4. Dairy cows will feel the heat too
The symptoms of heat stress are well known in humans, but as the report notes, this extends to animals as well. This has consequences for their health and safety as well as the food they produce.
Dairy cows are highlighted in the report as being “particularly sensitive” to this. Heat stress, it explains, negatively affects their appetite, rumen fermentation (“a process that converts ingested feed into energy sources for the animal”), and lactation yield. And with more frequently higher temperatures, the quality of cows’ milk is also hurt — the percentages of fat, lactose, and protein all decrease.
In 2010, heat stress impacted the U.S. dairy industry to the tune of $1.2 billion. Over the next 12 years, the industry expects to see a decline in production of about 0.60-1.35 percent due to heat stress, with larger impacts in the Southern Great Plains and the Southeast.
5. Public and private property will be underwater
There are 49.4 million housing units along America’s shorelines — and a whopping $1.4 trillion-worth of homes and business are located within just an eighth of a mile from the coast. The risk to coastal properties of sea level rise, coastal erosion, and strong storms has been well documented.
“There are already indications,” the report states, that homes in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and Norfolk, Virginia are “unsellable” due to recurring flooding.
Under the higher-end climate scenario, RPC8.5, it’s likely that anywhere between $66 billion and $106 billion worth of real estate will be below sea level by 2050. But it’s not just the owners of these properties who are going to feel the impact when their homes and businesses are hit.
Eventually, “diminished real estate values are likely to result in lower tax revenues and reduced community services,” the NCA explains. And beyond this, roads, bridges, tunnels, pipelines, all of the public infrastructure that provides important services to communities, will also be impacted. Some of this will also have national implications — coastal areas are home to international ports and critical energy infrastructure.
And there are costs to maintaining this property too. In California, for example, it’s expected to cost between $9 to $12 billion in order to alter major commercial ports in the area to adapt to 6 feet of sea level rise.
6. Transport will get worse
Water — from the sea and from the air — will disrupt transport networks.
In the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, intense precipitation will cause air travel to be delayed, and cargo shipments by rail and truck to be impacted too. In Hawaii and the Pacific Islands, more intense tropical cyclones will interrupt shipments to the region “more frequently and for longer periods” the report states.
Certain areas will also be affected by a lack of precipitation. In the Mississippi River and Great Lakes, for instance, shifting between high and low extremes in water levels limits boat traffic. This subsequently impacts jobs and the ability to get goods from one place to another, both domestically and internationally.
Road damages are expected to cost up to $20 billion by 2090 under the high-emissions scenario. And inland flooding will leave some 2,500 to 4,600 bridges across the country at risk, costing between $1.2 billion and $1.4 billion in damages each year by 2050.
There are currently more than 60,000 miles of roads and bridges located in coastal floodplains, the report notes — and they’re already vulnerable to the effects of storms and flooding.
The above image details how traffic delays are projected to get worse over the years under different emission scenarios due to high tide flooding across the eastern United States.
7. Megadroughts will last a decade
The water cycle in the Southwest has already been altered by climate change, the report states. This includes changes to the snowpack, which, come spring, is a vital resource when it starts to melt. With warmer temperatures, snow may fall as rain instead, which while useful in the moment, doesn’t collect in a future stockpile of frozen water.
Less snow means less water. And with earlier arrival of spring, there is less snow to last into the summer season. “These changes,” the assessment states, “attributed mainly to climate change, exacerbate hydrological drought.”
Scientists estimate that climate change accounted for between 10 and 20 percent of the reduced soil moisture experienced during the 2012-2014 California drought. Climate change is also responsible in part for the ongoing Colorado River Basin drought as well as declining runoff in the Rio Grande.
The assessment states that with more greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures will rise and the Southwest will get drier; “more frequent and severe droughts” will be experienced as a result. “Higher temperatures sharply increase the risk of megadroughts — dry periods lasting 10 years or more,” the report explains.
8. Tropical fisheries will decline
As ocean waters warm, species will shift to new areas where they’re better suited to specific temperatures. For example, a fish population could move northward as its original habitat zone gets too warm. But there won’t be many species adapted to the extreme temperatures the other fish are abandoning. This not only hurts the fish populations but also those dependent on them for food.
“Because tropical regions are already some of the warmest, there are few species available to replace species that move to cooler water,” the report explains. “This means that fishing communities in Hawaii and the Pacific Islands, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico are particularly vulnerable to climate-driven changes in fish populations.”
As the assessment notes, fish catch potential is expected to decline by 10 to 47 percent with a 6.3 degree Fahrenheit (3.5 degree Celsius) increase in global temperatures, compared to fish levels between 1950-1969. Meanwhile, in Alaska, fish catch is actually expected to increase by about 10 percent.
9. Hospitals will be hit by storm surges
We know that climate change will make hurricanes stronger and wetter, and that sea level rise will bring with it bigger storm surges and more frequent flooding. As a result, more people will likely be hurt, turning to hospitals for help. But what happens when the hospitals are also impacted by the storm?
As the assessment notes, hospitals along the mid-Atlantic and Southeast are increasingly at risk from storm surges. It maps out which hospitals in these areas will likely be impacted by different levels of storm.
In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, for instance, four of the 38 hospitals — 11 percent — “face possible storm surge inundation following a Category 2 hurricane.” This could increase to 26 hospitals (68 percent) under a Category 5 storm.
In Charleston County, South Carolina, seven of its 11 hospitals (64 percent) would be at risk from a Category 2 storm, increasing to 9 hospitals (82 percent) with a Category 4 hurricane.
“The impacts of a storm surge will depend on the effectiveness of resilience measures, such as flood walls, deployed by the facilities,” the assessment states.
10. Agricultural regions will need more weather stations
Climate change will undoubtedly impact crop yields in America’s agricultural regions. For some, this might mean more bountiful harvests (such as for wheat, hay, and barley); others, like fruit, nut, vegetable, and nursery growers, will be hurt by the shift. This will especially be the case when higher temperatures coincide with “critical periods of reproductive development,” the report states.
Due to the amount of variability depending on the type of crop and where it’s being grown, “climate-smart agriculture can reduce the impacts of climate change,” on crop yield, the assessment explains. However, in order to do this, producers need to have accurate climate forecasts, as well as adopt new management strategies for dealing with the changing weather conditions.
Currently, 23 states, including Oklahoma and Nebraska, have one or more publicly funded agricultural weather networks, the assessment notes. But if farmers are going to successfully adopt new climate-friendly practices, “a network of weather stations is required in agricultural regions.”