Global warming is making hot days hotter, rainfall and flooding heavier, hurricanes stronger and droughts more severe.
This intensification of weather and climate extremes will be the most visible impact of global warming in our everyday lives. People who have the least ability to cope with these changes--the poor, very old, very young, or sick--are the most vulnerable.
Stronger hurricanes, heavier rainfall and rising sea level: this is what global warming has in store for the U.S. Gulf and Atlantic coasts. The latest science indicates that maximum hurricane wind speed will increase 2 to 13 percent and rainfall rates will increase 10 to 31 percent over this century. At the same time, sea-level rise will cause bigger storm surges and further erode the natural defenses provided by coastal wetlands that buffer storm impacts.
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More weather and climate extremes are likely to impact U.S. energy security in ways that have not been adequately considered. For example, major weather-related power outages are already becoming more common, oil and gas infrastructure in the Gulf region is at risk as hurricanes and tropical storms intensify, coal transport by rail and barge across the Midwest and Northeast will face more flooding disruptions, and electricity generation in the Southwest will be limited by water shortages and more extreme heat.
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Global warming will bring more extreme heat waves. As the United States warms another 4 to 11°F on average over the next century, we will have more extremely hot summer days. Every part of the country will be affected. Urban areas will feel the heat more acutely because asphalt, concrete and other structures absorb and reradiate heat, causing temperature to be as much as 10°F higher than nearby rural areas.
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Global warming has caused more heavy rainfall events in the United States over the last few decades along with an increased likelihood of devastating floods. While no single storm or flood can be attributed directly to global warming, changing climate conditions are at least partly responsible for past trends. Because warmer air can hold more moisture, more and heavier precipitation is expected in the years to come. At the same time, shifts in snowfall patterns, the onset of spring and river-ice melting may all exacerbate some flooding risks.
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Unchecked global warming will worsen respiratory allergies for approximately 25 million Americans. Springtime allergies to tree pollens are projected to get worse. In the fall, ragweed is projected to thrive and become more irritating under increased carbon dioxide levels. These potential impacts of global warming could have a significant economic impact: allergies and asthma already cost the United States more than $32 billion annually in direct health care costs and lost productivity.
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Global warming is having a seemingly peculiar effect on winter weather in the northern United States. Winter is becoming milder and shorter on average; spring arrives 10 to 14 days earlier than it did just 20 years ago. But most snowbelt areas are still experiencing extremely heavy snowstorms. Some places are even expected to
have more heavy snowfall events as storm tracks shift northward and as reduced ice cover on the Great Lakes increases lake-effect snowfalls.
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Global warming is shifting precipitation patterns and also increasing evaporation rates. These trends will create persistently drier conditions in some places, including the American Southwest. At the same time, they will intensify the periodic droughts that affect other regions of the country. These longer and drier droughts will have major consequences for water supply, agriculture and wildlife. Although the American Southeast is typically thought of as having abundant water supplies, recent droughts have served as a wake up call for the region.
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Catastrophic wildfires just waiting to happen. This is the situation now facing the American West. Wildfire frequency, severity and damages are increasing because of rising temperatures, drying conditions and more lightning brought by global warming, combined with decades of fire suppression that allowed unsafe fuel loads to accumulate, a severe bark beetle infestation that is rapidly decimating trees and ever expanding human settlements in and near forests.
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More and more Americans will be living in places highly vulnerable to weather and climate extremes as population continues to grow rapidly in cities, along the coasts and in the South. Racial and ethnic minorities will be disproportionately impacted because their populations are concentrated in these places. For example, 56 percent of African Americans live in the Southern United States or in urban areas. Furthermore, global warming will add further stress to existing problems in urban areas, in particular poverty, inequities in access to health care, aging infrastructure and air pollution.
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National Wildlife magazine