Heat. Drought. Sea level rise and invasive species. The Southeast and Caribbean will escape few of the impacts of climate change, and the regions are already grappling with how to deal with many of them, according to the just-released National Climate Assessment.
The assessment calls the Southeast and the Caribbean regions “exceptionally vulnerable to sea level rise, extreme heat events, hurricanes, and decreased water availability.” Many of these impacts are already being felt by Southern states. Florida, in particular, has struggled to adapt to sea level rise and increased frequency of intense storms, Jennifer Jurado, Director of the Natural Resources Planning and Management Division in Broward County, Florida, told ThinkProgress.
It’s not just coincidence — we really are seeing these things taking place.
“It really reinforces what we intuitively know,” Jurado said of the report. “It does underscore that these are established trends. It’s not just coincidence — we really are seeing these things taking place.”
The vulnerability of the Southeast to climate impacts is troubling, the report notes, since the region is home to Atlanta and Miami, two of the most heavily-populated metropolitan areas in the U.S., and also contains some of the country’s fastest-growing metropolitan regions.
A combination of latitude, a wide range of topographies (South Florida, for instance, is low-lying, making it particularly vulnerable to sea level rise), proximity to the ocean and vulnerability to weather events such as El Niño have contributed to the Southeast experiencing more billion-dollar disasters in the past 30 years than the rest of the country combined.
Over the past several decades, the Southeast has tipped towards the extremes, with summers that are either “increasingly dry or extremely wet.” Leonard Berry, Director of Florida’s Center for Environmental Studies and lead author of the NCA Southeast chapter, told ThinkProgress that tendency towards extreme precipitation is something to which the Southeast will have to adapt. Droughts could pose a major threat to crops in the Southeast, he said, as could heavy rain: last year, record-breaking rain caused millions of dollars in crop damage in parts of the Southeast.
“That’s the reality that we might be facing — that we’re going to get extreme rainfall at one time and then a period without much rainfall,” he said. “How you manage water better under those circumstances is something that’s already concerning us. Water will be the scarce resource, I think, that will need a lot more management than we’re contemplating right now.”
We’re going to get extreme rainfall at one time and then a period without much rainfall.
Berry said local governments may need to turn more towards sustainable options for conserving and harvesting water, such as using rain barrels to capture water when it does fall. The Southeast has already struggled with drought, including the severe 2007 drought in Atlanta, Georgia and other parts of the region that dried up crops and led to bans on lawn watering.
During that time, some counties were able to survive the drought through the use of creative adaptation measures. Clayton County, Georgia, for instance, was able to keep their reservoirs at near capacity throughout the drought by developing a series of wetlands to filter treated water and by implementing sensitive leak protection programs. Implementing these water-saving techniques are choices that are good for the environment anyway, even for communities that aren’t facing water shortages, Berry said.
Another impact the Southeast will have to brace itself for is high temperatures. Already, the National Climate Assessment notes, the Southeast has had an increase of days above 95°F and nights above 75°F, and since 1970, extremely cold days have decreased.
“One of my colleagues calls it the increase in the number of ‘dog days,’ when it’s humid and over 95,” Berry said. “That in terms of energy use and in terms of air conditioning is an impact that I hadn’t thought about.”
Jurado said the increase of very hot days would put Florida’s more vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, in danger.
“The increase in the max day temperatures … that has very significant public health implications,” she said. “When you look at the trending circumstances long term, how do we propose to address that? I think that absolutely is an issue that our public officials, at the state level, need to contemplate.”
Along the coastal Southeast, sea level rise is one of the biggest threats from climate change, with the potential to contaminate water supplies through saltwater intrusion and the “imminent threat of increased inland flooding during heavy rain events” in low-lying areas, particularly in southeast Florida, a region already grappling with increased flooding and higher storm surges.
Some in Florida, including the four counties in the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, are already working to adapt the state to sea level rise. It’s an effort that Florida Rep. Joe Garcia, who has been vocal on sea level rise issues before, said in a statement will require the collaboration of all sectors of interests in Florida, including residents, business leaders, lawmakers and community organizers.
Jurado, whose Broward County is part of the Climate Change Compact, has been working with the three other South Florida counties in the compact to try to adapt the region to sea level rise. She said that the previous National Climate Assessment, which last came out in 2009 — the year before the Compact was created — has helped shape the Compact’s effort. Public health, for instance, wasn’t something the Compact had focused on initially, but that information in the NCA helped the Compact focus in on efforts that they may not have otherwise undertaken.
“It’s helped reinforce much of our existing strategy and placed additional importance on continuing to implement along the lines that we are,” she said of the NCA. “We have advanced a public health assessment of sea level rise and heat wave impacts on communities here in Southeast Florida … so yes, it absolutely is helping shape our efforts.”
The newest assessment recommends three strategies for adapting to sea level rise: protecting development by building levees or seawalls, accommodating development by doing things like raising buildings and investing in projects that ensure in natural protection, such as wetland restoration, or retreating from the area that’s either flooding consistently or at risk of becoming inundated. Berry said these three tactics should be used together by communities at risk, and that ideally, communities should prioritize projects that take advantage of natural systems such as oyster beds to help protect themselves from sea level rise.
In the end, though, he said some communities may find that retreating from rising seas is the best approach.
“Retreat — nobody likes to use that word, but in some cases, as the Dutch have found, it’s better to have an organized retreat from some environments where the costs and the penalties of trying to hold the rising sea level back are just too much,” Berry said.