The intensification of weather and climate extremes will be the most visible impact of climate change in our everyday lives. It's also causing dangerous changes to the landscape of our world, adding stress to wildlife species and their habitats.
The latest science connecting hurricanes and climate change suggests more is yet to come. Tropical storms are likely to bring higher wind speeds, more precipitation, and bigger storm surge in the coming decades.
Hurricane Sandy Disaster: In late October 2012, Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast of the United States, causing astounding devastation in loss of life, destruction of property, and widespread ecological damage. Hurricane Sandy is a devastating reminder of the risks of a changing climate, as increased warming raises the intensity of extreme weather events. Higher ocean temperatures are contributing to heavier rainfall and higher sea levels are producing stronger storm surges. And research suggests that Arctic ice melting is likely one of the conditions that helped turn Hurricane Sandy into a superstorm.
A storm of this staggering size and scale has serious consequences for the region's wildlife. Heavy rains and winds caused massive flooding and erosion of coastal and river national wildlife refuges from North Carolina to Maine, damaging more than 40 refuges. Flooding of coastal marshes inundated breeding habitats of many coastal bird species, including Atlantic Coast piping plovers—a threatened species that depends upon the shorelines affected by Sandy for breeding habitat. Hurricanes like Sandy can disrupt bird migrations as well as blow sea birds inland, causing them to end up in unusual places sometimes hundreds of miles away from their coastal habitat.
Hurricanes and Wildlife: Hurricanes are part of the natural environment to which wildlife have adapted. Species and habitats typically can rebound quickly after a storm passes through, and some species even flourish in the storm aftermath. However, increasingly intense storms will likely make it more difficult for regions and wildlife to bounce back. Major flooding can devastate ecosystems, and strong hurricane winds can wreak havoc on broad expanses of forests, causing downed trees, snapped trunks and limbs, and stripped leaves. Damaged forests increase the risk of wildfire, insect infestation, and the establishment of invasive species. Furthermore, as all the dead trees decompose, they release substantial carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change.
Especially at risk are species already vulnerable because of low population or reliance on isolated or limited habitats. A large storm that devastates broad expanses of ecosystem can push such species over the brink. The red-cockaded woodpeckers in South Carolina’s Marion National Forest almost were an example of this when Hurricane Hugo hit the area in September 1989. About 60 percent of the 500 groups of birds perished and 87 percent of the trees containing cavities where they live were destroyed. Fortunately other populations were not in the path of Hurricane Hugo and immediate action by the U.S. Forest Service to construct artificial cavities helped the birds recover.
Helping Wildlife After a Hurricane: Usually wildlife seek safety before a storm and may move many miles from their habitats. When the storm lessens, species that moved or were blown considerable distances will likely stay in their new secure area, restore food reserves, and then may return to their former habitat. The removal of damaged trees in the wake of storms likely removes even more habitat than the storm itself removed. Often trees with limbs ripped off by winds can be satisfactorily "doctored" and in some cases may be even better for cavity nesters after a storm than before. If permissible, some of the storm debris resulting from damage to trees and shrubs can be brush-piled to the benefit of many wildlife species, including birds, reptiles, insects, amphibians, and small mammals.
Despite the relative rarity of droughts in the second half of the 20th century, continued changes in climate will potentially cause both more extremely dry periods and more heavy rainfall events. In addition, sea level rise could contaminate critical underground freshwater reserves. These extreme weather events will exacerbate the problems we face with water management and protection in the United States.
Historic records show that regular droughts are more typical for the Southeast. Rapidly expanding population, irrigation, and power generation have increased water demands. Since 1960, the Southeast region's population doubled and is now home to 58 of the 100 fastest-growing counties in the nation. From 1960 to 2000, water use for municipalities, irrigation, and thermoelectric power more than tripled.
To plan for increasing variability in water supply, the Southeast should reduce climate change pollution to prevent and limit the impacts on communities and wildlife, and maintain and restore natural forest and wetland systems that absorb flood waters and provide efficient water storage. Improving water-use efficiency and conservation, and considering sea level rise in managing coastal freshwater resources, may also help curb the impacts.
Recent decades have brought more heavy summer rainfall events along with increased likelihood of devastating floods. While no single storm or flood can be attributed directly to climate change, changing climate conditions are at least partly responsible for past trends. Because warmer air can hold more moisture, climate change is expected to bring more and heavier precipitation in the years to come.
In the Midwest and Northeast, big storms that historically would only be seen once every 20 years are projected to happen as often as every four to six years by the end of the 21st century. At the same time, shifts in snowfall patterns, the onset of spring, and river-ice melting may all exacerbate flooding risks. Now is the time to confront the realities of climate change, including the increasing frequency and intensity of heavy rainfall events across the country. We need to reduce the risks to riverfront communities. Important steps include discouraging development in flood-prone areas and protecting the natural systems, such as wetlands, that help to buffer against floods.
Climate change is bringing more frequent and severe heat waves. More extremely hot summer days are projected for every part of the country, and 30 large cities are especially vulnerable. Unfortunately, climate models indicate that an average summer in 2050 will have even more days topping 90 degrees Fahrenheit if climate change continues unabated.
Many Americans in the eastern and southern United States experienced sweltering heat during the summer in recent years. Global temperature records were set during the early summer months, and states and cities also set numerous temperature records. Scientists project that, if we don't act, we will see more extreme heat waves, exacerbated urban air pollution, more vulnerable natural habitats, and negative impacts to agriculture. Heat waves disproportionately impact the poor, elderly, children, people with asthma or heart disease, or those that live in big cities. Air pollution in urban areas could get worse, bringing increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, and asthma attacks.
Fire is a natural and beneficial part of many forest ecosystems, but the number and intensity of fires today is challenging fire managers and forest communities throughout the West. The frequency of large wildfires and the total area burned have been steadily increasing in the western United States, with climate change being a major contributing factor.
Longer fire seasons will result as spring runoff occurs earlier, summer heat builds up more quickly, and warm conditions extend further into fall. Drier conditions will increase the probability of fire occurrence. Summertime temperatures in western North America are projected to get higher, enhancing evaporation rates, while precipitation is expected to decrease by up to 15 percent. The Southwest will be hit particularly hard, perhaps shifting to a more arid climate.
More fuel for forest fires will become available because warmer and drier conditions are conducive to widespread beetle and other insect infestations, resulting in broad ranges of dead and highly combustible trees. Higher temperatures enhance winter survival of mountain pine beetles and allow for a more rapid life cycle. At the same time, moderate drought conditions for a year or longer can weaken trees, allowing bark beetles to overcome the trees’ defense mechanisms more easily. Increased frequency of lightning is also expected as thunderstorms become more severe.
Wildlife is impacted in several ways. In some cases, they can't escape the fires. Their habitat may be destroyed or dramatically altered, and they undergo major stressors trying to recover. In addition, bigger fires are changing the ecosystem balance.
Climate change is having a seemingly peculiar effect on winter in the continental United States. According to the National Wildlife Federation's report, Odd-ball Winter Weather: Global Warming’s Wake-Up Call for the Northern United States, wintertime temperatures have been increasing across the northern United States, and winters are getting shorter. Many areas also are seeing bigger and more intense snowstorms, especially in the upper Midwest and Northeast, and storm tracks are shifting northward. Areas from the Dakotas eastward to northern Michigan are seeing a trend toward more heavy snowfall seasons.
Many nasty pests are expanding farther north or are no longer being kept in check by frosts or sufficiently cold temperatures. The ticks responsible for carrying Lyme disease are one example of projected range expansion as winters become milder. Higher temperatures have also enhanced winter survival of the beetle larvae. Millions of acres of pine forests across the western United States, Alaska, and Canada have been decimated by pine bark beetle infestations in recent years.
Large economic uncertainty and potential losses are in store for many communities, especially in regions where winter recreation provides significant tourism revenue. A number of Northeastern ski areas are likely to see a 25 to 45 percent decline in the length of their ski season by the 2070s. Lakes across the Midwest are freezing later and have thinner ice, often leading to ice conditions too dangerous for safe ice fishing. In addition, removing snow and ice from our roadways cost states more than $1.2 billion each year on average.
If left unchecked, climate change will worsen respiratory allergies for approximately 25 million Americans. As detailed in the National Wildlife Federation’s report Extreme Allergies and Global Warming, many allergy triggers will worsen as a result of climate change unless action is taken.
Worse Spring Allergies: Spring is a mixed blessing for allergy sufferers. Tree pollen is the most common trigger for spring hay fever allergies. With spring arriving 10 to 14 days earlier than it did just 20 years ago, pollination is already starting sooner. New maps in the report show projected increases in habitat conducive to more allergenic trees.
Worse Fall Allergies: In the fall, ragweed is projected to thrive and become more irritating under increased carbon dioxide levels. Ragweed plants at today’s carbon dioxide levels are likely producing about twice as much pollen as they would have 100 years ago. The pollen production rate could double again if we keep adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
More Asthma Attacks: Climate change is especially bad news for the millions of asthmatics in the United States whose asthma attacks are triggered by allergens. They will have to cope with more abundant and severe allergens plus likely increases in ground-level ozone pollution, particularly in urban areas. High ozone concentrations can trigger asthma symptoms and make bronchial airways less able to cope with allergens.
More Health Costs: These potential impacts of climate change could have a significant economic impact—allergies and asthma already cost the United States nearly $33 billion annually in direct health care costs and lost productivity.
Climate change, and the increased weather and climate extremes it brings, will impact U.S. energy security in ways that have not been adequately considered. The National Wildlife Federation’s report, More Extreme Weather and the U.S. Energy Infrastructure, details how more severe droughts, more intense tropical storms, and heavier rainfall events could cause major disruptions in the existing systems that deliver energy to the nation, even as these existing energy systems are already beginning to crumble.
Future investments must transform the U.S. energy infrastructure to be resilient in the face of more extreme weather and climate. The nation should undertake a detailed national climate vulnerability assessment for the energy industry and develop climate adaptation plans to address vulnerabilities. Furthermore, we must begin designing, strategically locating, and making investments in energy systems—such as appropriately sited offshore wind and distributed photovoltaic solar—that are more resilient to severe weather and climate disruptions.
North American Indian Tribes are especially harmed by climate change as more ecological shifts and more frequent, more extreme weather events occur. Because Tribes are heavily dependent on natural resources, severe weather events like droughts, floods, wildfires, and snowstorms make tribal communities particularly vulnerable and impact Native Americans more than they impact the general population.
A report detailing how climate change is adversely and disproportionately affecting Indian Tribes in North America, Facing the Storm: Indian Tribes, Climate-Induced Weather Extremes, and the Future for Indian Country focuses on those who rely on a healthy environment to sustain their economic, cultural, and spiritual lives.
Some people are more vulnerable to intensifying weather and climate extremes than others. People of color, Indigenous peoples, low-income communities, and people who are old, young, or already sick are at greatest risk. Hurricane Katrina is a prime example: the poor and elderly lost the most because of where they lived and their limited ability to get out of harm’s way. More than 50 percent of New Orleans’s African American population was displaced, the largest number of any group.
As stated in the National Wildlife Federation report, More Extreme Weather: Implications for Public Health and Social Justice, more and more Americans will be living in places highly vulnerable to weather and climate extremes as populations continue 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. Furthermore, climate change will add further stress to existing problems in urban areas, in particular poverty, inequities in access to health care, aging infrastructure, and air pollution. We must take action to support climate justice.
Extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy make two things clear: we need to reduce the risks of climate change by reducing our carbon pollution, and we must strengthen our defenses to minimize future storm-related catastrophes. At the National Wildlife Federation, we're working to pass policies to keep people and wildlife safe from storms and floods, and working with on-the-ground partners to protect and restore habitat in areas vulnerable to extreme weather events.
Protect Wildlife from Climate Change: Like us, wildlife are vulnerable to climate change. Without conservation efforts to protect wildlife from climate change, many species are at great peril. We are working to conserve habitats for wildlife and taking measures to keep their populations strong, better enabling them to withstand the extreme weather of climate change.
Reduce Carbon Pollution: To avoid increased damage from severe weather events, we must get serious about reducing carbon pollution. We are pushing the administration to follow through on its efforts to use the Clean Air Act to limit carbon pollution from power plants and other sources, and working quickly to expand clean energy solutions.
Promote Climate Readiness: The best time to protect against and plan for natural catastrophe is long before it happens. Some federal, state, and municipal agencies have taken steps to develop climate-adaptation plans, but most of these plans have yet to be implemented, and will require political will and adequate funding to truly create more climate-resilient communities. We are working with coastal communities to find nature-based solutions for increasing their resilience to climate change.
Make Flood Insurance Reform Real: Hurricane Sandy destroyed countless properties across the Northeast, including many that belonged to people who had no idea their property was located within a floodplain and therefore did not have flood insurance. By working to reform the National Flood Insurance program, we'll protect more properties and encourage smarter and safer development.
Protect Our Natural Defenses: Natural features like wetlands reduce storm intensity and protect nearby properties and wildlife habitat from flooding. We must ensure that the government helps protect these beneficial and cost-effective flood control features. The National Wildlife Federation is working to restore coastal wetlands in the Gulf of Mexico, which will help protect places like New Orleans from the potential impacts of storms like Hurricane Katrina.
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