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Finding Safe Haven in the Climate Change Future | A Summary

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Climate change is an increasing concern for people around the world. With rising temperatures, extreme weather patterns, and natural disasters, it's more important than ever to find safe places to live and protect ourselves and our families. In this article, we explore the concept of safe havens in the context of climate change and what factors to consider when searching for a place to call home.

Evaluating the Vulnerability of a Location

When searching for a safe haven, it's crucial to consider the vulnerability of a given location to the impacts of climate change. Some factors to consider include the elevation of the area, its proximity to the coast, and its exposure to extreme weather events. For example, areas located at higher elevations are generally considered safer from the effects of sea level rise, while coastal communities are more vulnerable to hurricanes and storm surges.

Key Features of a Safe Haven

In addition to considering the vulnerability of a location, it's also important to look for certain features that can make an area more resilient to the impacts of climate change. Some key features to consider include:

  • Access to clean water: A reliable source of clean water is essential for survival in the face of climate change. This can include access to underground aquifers, rivers, and lakes.
  • Strong infrastructure: Strong infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and buildings, can help a community withstand the impacts of extreme weather events and natural disasters.
  • Proximity to resources: Access to essential resources, such as food, medical care, and emergency services, can be critical in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
  • Community resilience: A strong and resilient community can help residents recover from the effects of climate change and natural disasters. This can include access to support networks, community resources, and local leadership.

Finding the Right Safe Haven

Finding the right safe haven in the face of climate change can be a complex and challenging process. However, by considering the vulnerability of a location and the key features of a safe haven, you can help ensure that you and your family are protected from the impacts of climate change.

Learn How Climate Change is Affecting Human Health

Climate change is not just a threat to the environment, but also to human health. Rising temperatures, extreme weather events, and changes in precipitation patterns can lead to the spread of infectious diseases, air pollution, and heat-related illnesses. Climate change also exacerbates existing health issues such as respiratory problems and malnutrition. It's crucial for us to take action to mitigate the impacts of climate change and protect the health and well-being of current and future generations. Learn More.

Regions

The Northeast

As the world continues to warm, it's becoming increasingly important to find places that offer protection from the risks posed by climate change. According to a recent analysis by ProPublica and the New York Times, the Northeast region of the United States is one of the best places to find such safety.

The analysis looked at six major categories that could be affected by climate change: heat stress, wet bulb (the combination of heat and humidity), crop loss, large fires, sea-level rise, and economic damages. Each county was rated based on the impact climate change would have on them, given two emissions scenarios: high and moderate.

The results showed that the Northeast was one of the safest regions in the country, with six of the top ten best-rated counties found in Vermont and three in Maine. The region was rated low in terms of overall climate risks, except for its coastline, which is highly vulnerable to sea level rise.

Despite the low overall risk profile, the Northeast still faces challenges from climate change. Higher temperatures in the region are expected to increase heat-related deaths and decrease air quality, especially in urban areas. Additionally, the region has seen more than a 70% increase in rainfall measured during heavy precipitation events since 1958.

Despite these challenges, the Northeast is well-positioned to handle an influx of climate migrants. Several former industrial hubs across the region that were partially vacated as manufacturing moved elsewhere seem like natural destinations, so long as they aren't located along the coast.

However, relocating those already in harm's way would represent a massive undertaking, as millions of Northeastern residents live near coastlines and river floodplains, where they are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

As temperatures continue to rise, the risks to the Northeast will also rise significantly. Cities like Boston and New York are already spending billions of dollars to protect some neighborhoods from rising waters, but the region will still face increased risks from storms and hurricanes, which will occur more frequently and with greater intensity.

The Southwest

A vast region of the United States encompassing California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona - is plagued by a common problem: a scarcity of fresh water. The situation has only been exacerbated by the ongoing megadrought in the area, leading to the Department of the Interior to announce water rationing measures to states that rely on the Colorado River.

The Colorado River system provides water to around 40 million people, and rising temperatures contribute to the decline in the river's flow. The Nature Conservancy states that the river's average flow has declined by almost 20% since 2000, with half of that attributed to rising temperatures. These temperatures are predicted to rise an additional 2-5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050, which could lead to a further reduction in river flows by 10-40%.

Climate change is a major factor in the worsening of droughts in the Southwest, with scientists attributing 40-50% of the severity of the current megadrought to rising temperatures. The region, which is the "hottest and driest" in the country according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is struggling with stressed water resources and an increase in evaporation rates, leading to dried-out vegetation and a heightened risk of wildfires.

This year, the U.S. Forest Service released a report admitting it had underestimated the impact of climate change on the Southwest's ecosystem, leading to the largest fire in New Mexico's history - the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire - which destroyed 341,471 acres and at least 903 structures. This disaster, along with the overall effect of climate change on the region, has resulted in homeowners facing difficulties in insuring their properties.

Phoenix, the fastest-growing big city in the US between 2010 and 2020, with a population growth of 163,000 residents, is facing a new normal of frequent water shortages and scorching summer heat. The average summer temperature in Phoenix has risen by 3.8 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970. Climate models predict this will increase by an additional 10 degrees by 2100, bringing daily average summer temperatures to 114 degrees F.

To mitigate the dangers of such high temperatures, cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix have created government positions, such as a "chief heat officer" and an Office of Heat Response and Mitigation, to reduce heat-related hospitalizations and deaths. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predict that if greenhouse gas emissions continue on their current path, the Southwest will experience "the highest increase in annual premature deaths due to extreme heat in the country," with an estimated 850 additional deaths per year by 2050.

The Southwest region is also at risk of other climate change-related dangers, such as wildfires, air pollution from smoke, and extreme flooding. These risks have led insurance companies to reevaluate coverage in areas with elevated wildfire risk, and the dangers of wildfire smoke have been documented to have adverse health effects.

Despite the efforts of local officials, such as the city of San Francisco, commissioning a report with the US Army Corps of Engineers to protect the city from sea level rise, the Southwest region is facing a chaotic future of rapidly changing and unstable climate conditions. As temperatures continue to rise, so do the number and scope of climate change risk factors, leaving communities unprepared for what's to come.

The Midwest

The heartland of America, where eight states - Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin - converge, is facing a tempestuous future. The Midwest has always been at the crossroads of warm, humid air from the Gulf of Mexico and the icy polar winds that sweep down from Canada. However, in recent times, climate change has disrupted the region's weather patterns, and it is projected to have far-reaching impacts on precipitation, food production, heat, and humidity.

As per a 2020 analysis by the New York Times and ProPublica, Wisconsin leads the way in terms of safety from climate change risks in the Midwest, with six of its counties - Menominee, Vilas, Winnebago, Shawano, Portage, and Polk - ranking in the top ten. The other four counties in the top ten - Keweenaw, Luce, Crawford, and Alger - are located in Michigan. These rankings were based on data from the Rhodium Group, a data analytics firm, and took into account six major categories - heat stress, humidity, wildfires, crop loss, sea level rise, and overall economic damages, along with two emission scenarios, high and moderate.

However, the story is vastly different in the southern parts of the Midwest. For example, Missouri's Camden, Hickory, Wayne, Bollinger, Dunklin, Maries, Phelps, and Ripley counties, and Illinois's Alexander and Pulaski counties, ranked the lowest in the region, mostly due to poor scores in farm crop yields, heat, and the wet-bulb effect.

The term "wet bulb" may not be familiar to many Americans, but it will soon become a household name in parts of the Midwest. This term refers to a lethal combination of hot temperatures and high humidity that prevents the body from cooling itself through sweat evaporation. NASA predicts that Midwestern states like Missouri and Iowa will reach the critical wet-bulb limit in the next 50 years, resulting in higher rates of weather-related deaths.

If emissions continue at their current pace, the Midwest will experience significant temperature shifts, severely impacting human health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Midwest is projected to have the largest increase in extreme temperature-related premature deaths compared to other regions, and northern midwestern communities and vulnerable populations that have not experienced high temperatures may be at risk for heat-related disease and death.

The Midwest will also face poor air quality, which was not included in the New York Times/ProPublica rankings. The CDC states that increases in ground-level ozone and particulate matter are linked to lung and cardiovascular diseases, which can lead to hospitalization, missed school days, and premature death. Without mitigation, ground-level ozone concentrations are projected to increase across most of the Midwest, leading to an additional 200 to 550 premature deaths in the region per year by 2050.

Moreover, the CDC warns that some of the climate change consequences forecast to hit the Midwest, such as drought, severe flash flooding, and diminished air quality, can lead to mental health problems such as anxiety. Clinical health psychologist Kristi White from Minneapolis has already been treating young adults for anxiety caused by climate change.

While the risks of climate change to the Midwest and other regions of the country have been predicted by climate scientists for some time, it is challenging to predict which parts of the region will experience extreme weather events and how severe they will be. For instance, Newton, Ill., experienced a 1-in-1,000-year rain event in August, which was the third such event in a single week in neighboring Kentucky and Missouri.

The Pacific Northwest

The Pacific Northwest, encompassing the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, was once a place of mild summer weather, with temperatures soaring only to pleasant heights. But in the summer of 2021, a heat dome descended upon the region, unleashing a wave of searing heat unlike anything in recent memory. Records were shattered by as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit, leaving more than 1,000 people dead and killing billions of sea creatures in the US and Canada. The once mild summer became a blistering inferno, with nighttime providing little reprieve.

Despite the extreme nature of this 1-in-10,000-year event, some dismissed it as a fluke and denied the role of climate change. However, the following summer brought another deadly heat dome, albeit less severe, yet still undeniable. In late July, Portland saw temperatures above 95°F for seven consecutive days, breaking a new record. Seattle, a city where air conditioning is a luxury for many, also suffered through six straight days of temperatures above 90°F, setting a new mark for prolonged warmth. The heat claimed the lives of more than a dozen people in the region and sent dozens to the hospital.

Climate change skeptics found it easy to dismiss summer heat, but the autumn in the Pacific Northwest was harder to ignore. On October 16th, Seattle broke its temperature record by 16 degrees, reaching 88°F, a time of year when warm clothing is the norm. Portland recorded 87°F on October 15th, one of seven high-temperature records set that month, with the city exceeding 80°F on 12 days, double the previous October record of six.

The ratio of record-high to record-low temperatures is one of the clearest signs that the planet is warming. A 2009 study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research found that new record-high temperatures were outpacing new record-low temperatures by a ratio of 2:1. Since that study was published, temperatures have continued to rise in the Pacific Northwest. Computer models predict that disparity will grow to 20:1 by 2050 and 50:1 by 2100.

The warming climate in the Pacific Northwest has resulted in a “dramatic decline in spring snowpack,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency, with a 23% drop across the Western US. The EPA states that “all but three stations” in the region have seen a decrease in snowpack since 1955. By 2080, the Cascade mountain range is expected to see an 80% reduction in April snowpack, according to the latest National Climate Assessment.

The declining snowpack is already affecting agriculture in the Pacific Northwest, altering the growing cycle of plants and causing harm to fish populations in rivers and streams. The warmer temperatures have resulted in degraded water quality in 16,000 miles of Oregon rivers and streams, leading to the loss of hundreds of thousands of sockeye salmon in the Columbia and Snake river basins.

Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon has seen the impacts of climate change firsthand. “We have a much longer, hotter fire season,” he said. “Six towns burned to the ground last Labor Day. We have growing insect populations, pine beetles, destroying forests. Loss of snowpack in the Cascades means a decrease in the recreation economy and water for irrigation and streams, which are warmer and smaller, affecting salmon and trout.” The warmer temperatures and earlier loss of snowpack also increase the risk of wildfires, as seen in October when smoke from wildfires in the Pacific Northwest led to the worst air quality on Earth in cities like Portland and Seattle.

As the Pacific Northwest continues to experience the harsh realities of a changing climate, its residents are left to grapple with the profound impacts that have already taken hold. The summer heat domes that have become all too common in recent years have shattered temperature records and left a wake of death and destruction in their path. The decline in snowpack, a hallmark of the region's winter, is affecting the growing cycle of crops and decimating fish populations in rivers and streams. The increased risk of wildfires is filling the air with smoke and ash, making breathing difficult.

The Great Plains

The Great Plains, a sea of flatness that sprawls across the heart of America, from the Canadian frontier to the Gulf of Mexico, encompasses the states of Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. While its massive expanse translates into vastly contrasting weather conditions, with North Dakota enduring icy winters, and states like Texas scorching under the summer sun, the region has been undergoing a swift warming trend.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, North Dakota, with an average annual temperature of 41.1°F, has warmed by an average of 2.6°F since the dawn of the 20th century, while Texas, with an average temperature of 65.8°F, has warmed by 1.5°F on average over the same period. The rising temperatures are largely due to the amplified greenhouse effect caused by increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Unless there is a technological breakthrough or concerted action to reduce emissions by reducing the burning of fossil fuels, scientists warn that the world will continue to heat up.

Texas, in particular, is home to the Great Plains' ten worst-rated counties in terms of overall climate change risks, according to the Rhodium Group and a 2020 analysis by ProPublica and The New York Times. The state's latitude and proximity to the Gulf of Mexico make it particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

On the other hand, North Dakota's Ward, Renville, Mountrail, and Bottineau counties, along with Montana's Silver Bow, Glacier, and Deer Lodge counties, and Wyoming's Uinta County, are among the safest locations in the Great Plains in terms of climate change risk.

This year's scorching summer temperatures have been particularly brutal for many states in the southern Great Plains, and the drought conditions have continued to worsen across the entire region. Oklahoma City set a new temperature record of 110°F during a week-long heat wave in July. However, the all-time records set in 1936 during the Dust Bowl years were not surpassed.

Despite claims by climate deniers, the records set during the Dust Bowl years, which were exacerbated by poor farming practices, do not prove that global warming is not happening. The fact is that climate anomalies have continued since human activities began releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the incidence of heat waves is increasing, and the average number of extreme cold days is decreasing.

The Great Plains' water cycle has already been disrupted by rising average temperatures, and this is particularly evident in the declining water levels in the High Plains Aquifer. In the future, this could pose significant problems for agriculture, which relies on water delivery.

In the northern portion of the Great Plains, precipitation is projected to increasingly fall in the form of heavy precipitation events in winter and spring, which can increase flooding and runoff, reduce water quality, and cause soil erosion. In the southern portion of the region, recharge is limited, and the water level in the aquifer is declining. Climate change will worsen this situation by causing drier conditions and increasing the need for irrigation.

Soil erosion, increased evaporation rates, and the threat of wildfires are also growing as a result of rising average temperatures and the accompanying changes in the water cycle. The surest bet for the Great Plains is that the warmer average temperatures will play out differently across the region, which is already prone to dramatic weather fluctuations. Some parts will have to deal with an increase in the "wet bulb" effect, the potentially fatal combination of hot temperatures and high humidity that prevent the body from cooling down through sweat evaporation.

Alaska and Hawaii

Hawaii

The sun sets over Makena Beach and Cove on Maui, as the ocean crashes against the lava rocks in a symphony of sound. But behind the idyllic scenery, a crisis of epic proportions brews. Hawaii, the first U.S. state to declare a climate emergency, is facing a barrage of threats from the rapidly rising seas.

The seven Hawaiian islands, where people call home, are under attack from the relentless march of sea level rise. Nearly half of the state's land area lies within 5 miles of the ocean, making it particularly vulnerable. The land is sinking, and the seas are rising faster by the day, putting the lives and homes of tens of thousands of people in peril.

“The sea level around Hilo Bay on the Big Island has risen by 10 inches since 1950, and now, it’s rising faster, at about 1 inch every 4 years,” says the state's climate change portal. “This increases the frequency and reach of coastal floods, which affect our communities.”

A 2018 study by the University of Hawaii found that 34% of the state's shorelines are already vulnerable to waves and storms made more intense by climate change. Coastal erosion has claimed 13 miles of beaches and left 70% of the existing beaches in a precarious state. If action is not taken, the iconic Waikiki Beach, with its concrete barriers shielding the beachfront hotels, will be but a memory. By 2100, projections show that Hawaii could see another 1 to 4 feet of sea level rise, possibly as much as 8 feet, spelling the end of the Waikiki coastline as we know it.

Coastal flooding in Hawaii has risen sharply since the 1960s, and if sea levels rise by 3.2 feet by 2100, 25,800 acres of land will become unusable, and 6,500 structures near the shoreline will be compromised or lost, warns the Hawaii Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission. The primary cause of global sea level rise in Hawaii is the melting of polar ice caps and glaciers due to warmer temperatures. Hawaii is getting warmer, with temperatures in Honolulu rising by 2.6°F since 1950, with the bulk of this warming occurring in the past decade. If greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced, Hawaii will become much warmer still, with average temperatures increasing by as much as 5-7.5° F by the end of the century.

The world's oceans have absorbed 90% of the warming in recent decades caused by the burning of fossil fuels, and in Hawaii, the higher ocean temperatures threaten the coral reefs. The Environmental Protection Agency predicts that if warming continues at its current pace, 40% of Hawaii's coral reefs could be lost by the end of this century. Climate change is also changing rainfall patterns in the state, with rainfall declining significantly over the past 30 years and widely varying rainfall patterns on each island.

In April 2018, epic rainfall hit the island of Kauai, with an all-time U.S. record 50 inches of rain falling in a 24-hour period, damaging or destroying 532 homes and causing damages of almost $180 million. Such overwhelming downpours will become an increasingly common feature of life on Hawaii going forward, forcing officials to prepare.

On the bright side, a 2022 study by researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa found that, thanks to rising temperatures, Hawaii can expect about 5% more days with a rainbow in the next 80 years. But the sobering reality is that the Hawaiian islands are facing an existential climate emergency, and action must be taken now to restore a safe climate.

Alaska

Amidst the frozen tundra of the Alaskan wilderness, a tale of woe is unfolding. The once-frigid state, now America's fastest-warming, is grappling with the consequences of a rapidly warming planet. A 4.22°F rise in average temperature since 1970 has resulted in a litany of hazards that have upended daily life in Alaska.

Recently, the northernmost city of Utqiagvik shattered its all-time winter high temperature record by an astonishing 6°F, reaching a balmy 40°F, despite being 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle. This is only the latest example of the new normal in Alaska, where climate change has brought about warmer temperatures and an array of challenges, from melting permafrost and thinning sea ice, to increased wildfires and flooding.

The Arctic Circle, which encompasses the upper third of Alaska, is experiencing temperatures that are, on average, 11.5°F above normal this month. Until recently, the Arctic Circle was a place where wildfires were virtually unheard of. But a 2020 study by the University of Alaska found that climate change has made them much more common. Higher temperatures are drying out vegetation more rapidly, shortening the amount of time that snow covers the ground, and increasing evaporation rates, making the state much more vulnerable to wildfire risk.

The state is also grappling with the rise of "zombie fires," which feast on the trees of the boreal forest and duff, an organic layer of dead, dried-out plants that covers much of the ground and helps insulate the permafrost. These fires are believed to have been extinguished but keep burning throughout the harsh Alaskan winter, even under snow cover. The higher temperatures have dramatically increased evaporation rates, making the state's flora akin to kindling and giving zombie fires the opportunity to reemerge.

The steady disappearance of sea ice has left residents and polar bears alike at risk of more intense storms. Studies have concluded that the continued warming of the ocean will continue to supercharge storms in Alaska by the end of the century, resulting in three times as many storms that will be more intense.

Several Indigenous tribes are being forced to decide whether to abandon their waterfront villages due to persistent flooding and erosion. The warmer waters are wreaking havoc on the state's seafood industry, which generated an annual economic output of $5.6 billion in 2018. In recent years, 14 major fishery disasters in Alaska have been linked to climate change.

The melting permafrost beneath the duff is another concern for scientists. When permafrost melts, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term. If the Arctic transforms into a net emitter of greenhouse gases, it could cause global temperatures to rise even further, resulting in more permafrost melt.

Alaskans have long known the potential negative impacts of climate change on their way of life, but with the recent revocation of the state's climate response team, the future looks uncertain. The Alaskan wilderness, once a frozen bastion of serenity, is now a front-line witness to the effects of a rapidly changing planet.

References:

  1. "Climate Change Impacts in the United States by Region" by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) - https://nca2014.globalchange.gov/report/regions/overview This report provides a comprehensive overview of the impacts of climate change on various regions of the United States, including the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, Great Plains, Southwest, and West.
  2. "Climate Change Impacts in the Midwest" by the Union of Concerned Scientists - https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/climate-change-impacts-midwest This report examines the impacts of climate change in the Midwest region of the United States, including increased heat waves, drought, and heavy rainfall events.
  3. "Climate Change in the Southwest" by the National Wildlife Federation - https://www.nwf.org/Educational-Resources/Wildlife-Guide/Threats-to-Wildlife/Climate-Change/Southwest This report focuses on the effects of climate change in the Southwest region of the United States, including water scarcity, wildfires, and impacts on wildlife and ecosystems.
  4. "Climate Change Impacts in the West" by the Natural Resources Defense Council - https://www.nrdc.org/stories/climate-change-impacts-west This report details the impacts of climate change in the Western region of the United States, including prolonged drought, declining snowpack, and increased wildfires.
William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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