The climate of the Southeast is uniquely warm and wet, with mild winters and high humidity, compared with the rest of the continental United States. The average annual temperature of the Southeast did not change significantly over the past century as a whole. Since 1970, however, annual average temperature has risen about 2Â°F, with the greatest seasonal increase in temperature occurring during the winter months. The number of freezing days in the Southeast has declined by four to seven days per year for most of the region since the mid-1970s.
Average autumn precipitation has increased by 30 percent for the region since 1901. The decline in fall precipitation in South Florida contrasts strongly with the regional average. There has been an increase in heavy downpours in many parts of the region,380,381 while the percentage of the region experiencing moderate to severe drought increased over the past three decades. The area of moderate to severe spring and summer drought has increased by 12 percent and 14 percent, respectively, since the mid-1970s. Even in the fall months, when precipitation tended to increase in most of the region, the extent of drought increased by 9 percent.
Climate models project continued warming in all seasons across the Southeast and an increase in the rate of warming through the end of this century. The projected rates of warming are more than double those experienced in the Southeast since 1975, with the greatest temperature increases projected to occur in the summer months. The number of very hot days is projected to rise at a greater rate than the average temperature. Under a lower emissions scenario,91 average temperatures in the region are projected to rise by about 4.5Â°F by the 2080s, while a higher emissions scenario91 yields about 9Â°F of average warming (with about a 10.5Â°F increase in summer, and a much higher heat index). Spring and summer rainfall is projected to decline in South Florida during this century. Except for indications that the amount of rainfall from individual hurricanes will increase,68 climate models provide divergent results for future precipitation for the remainder of the Southeast. Models project that Gulf Coast states will tend to have less rainfall in winter and spring, compared with the more northern states in the region (see map on page 31 in the National Climate Change section). Because higher temperatures lead to more evaporation of moisture from soils and water loss from plants, the frequency, duration, and intensity of droughts are likely to continue to increase.
The destructive potential of Atlantic hurricanes has increased since 1970, correlated with an increase in sea surface temperature. A similar relationship with the frequency of landfalling hurricanes has not been established98,384-387 (see National Climate Change section for a discussion of past trends and future projections). An increase in average summer wave heights along the U.S. Atlantic coastline since 1975 has been attributed to a progressive increase in hurricane power.112,388 The intensity of Atlantic hurricanes is likely to increase during this century with higher peak wind speeds, rainfall intensity, and storm surge height and strength.90,112 Even with no increase in hurricane intensity, coastal inundation and shoreline retreat would increase as sea-level rise accelerates, which is one of the most certain and most costly consequences of a warming climate.164
Projected increases in air and water temperatures will cause heat-related stresses for people, plants, and animals.
The warming projected for the Southeast during the next 50 to 100 years will create heat-related stress for people, agricultural crops, livestock, trees, transportation and other infrastructure, fish, and wildlife. The average temperature change is not as important for all of these sectors and natural systems as the projected increase in maximum and minimum temperatures. Examples of potential impacts include:
- Increased illness and death due to greater summer heat stress, unless effective adaptation measures are implemented.164
- Decline in forest growth and agricultural crop production due to the combined effects of thermal stress and declining soil moisture.390
- Increased buckling of pavement and railways.217,222
- Decline in dissolved oxygen in stream, lakes, and shallow aquatic habitats leading to fish kills and loss of aquatic species diversity.
- Decline in production of cattle and other rangeland livestock.391 Significant impacts on beef cattle occur at continuous temperatures in the 90 to 100Â°F range, increasing in danger as the humidity level increases (see Agriculture sector).391 Poultry and swine are primarily raised in indoor operations, so warming would increase energy requirements.193
A reduction in very cold days is likely to reduce the loss of human life due to cold-related stress, while heat stress and related deaths in the summer months are likely to increase. The reduction in cold-related deaths is not expected to offset the increase in heat-related deaths (see Human Health sector). Other effects of the projected increases in temperature include more frequent outbreaks of shellfish-borne diseases in coastal waters, altered distribution of native plants and animals, local loss of many threatened and endangered species, displacement of native species by invasive species, and more frequent and intense wildfires.
Decreased water availability is very likely to affect the regionâ€™s economy as well as its natural systems.
Decreased water availability due to increased temperature and longer periods of time between rainfall events, coupled with an increase in societal demand is very likely to affect many sectors of the Southeastâ€™s economy. The amount and timing of water available to natural systems is also affected by climate change, as well as by human response strategies such as increasing storage capacity (dams)142 and increasing acreage of irrigated cropland.392 The 2007 water shortage in the Atlanta region created serious conflicts between three states, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (which operates the dam at Lake Lanier), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is charged with protecting endangered species. As humans seek to adapt to climate change by manipulating water resources, streamflow and biological diversity are likely to be reduced.142 During droughts, recharge of groundwater will decline as the temperature and spacing between rainfall events increase. Responding by increasing groundwater pumping will further stress or deplete aquifers and place increasing strain on surface water resources. Increasing evaporation and plant water loss rates alter the balance of runoff and groundwater recharge, which is likely to lead to saltwater intrusion into shallow aquifers in many parts of the Southeast.142
Sea-level rise and the likely increase in hurricane intensity and associated storm surge will be among the most serious consequences of climate change.
An increase in average sea level of up to 2 feet or more and the likelihood of increased hurricane intensity and associated storm surge are likely to be among the most costly consequences of climate change for this region (see National Climate Change section). As sea level rises, coastal shorelines will retreat. Wetlands will be inundated and eroded away, and low-lying areas including some communities will be inundated more frequently â€“ some permanently â€“ by the advancing sea. Current buildings and infrastructure were not designed to withstand the intensity of the projected storm surge, which would cause catastrophic damage. As temperature increases and rainfall patterns change, soil moisture and runoff to the coast are likely to be more variable. The salinity of estuaries, coastal wetlands, and tidal rivers is likely to increase in the southeastern coastal zone, thereby altering coastal ecosystems and displacing them farther inland if no barriers exist. More frequent storm surge flooding and permanent inundation of coastal ecosystems and communities is likely in some low-lying areas, particularly along the central Gulf Coast where the land surface is sinking.393,394 Rapid acceleration in the rate of increase in sea-level rise could threaten a large portion of the Southeast coastal zone. The likelihood of a catastrophic increase in the rate of sea-level rise is dependent upon ice sheet response to warming, which is the subject of much scientific uncertainty (see Global Climate Change section).90 Such rapid rise in sea level is likely to result in the destruction of barrier islands and wetlands.257,390
Compared to the present coastal situation, for which vulnerability is quite high, an increase in hurricane intensity will further affect low-lying coastal ecosystems and coastal communities along the Gulf and South Atlantic coastal margin. An increase in intensity is very likely to increase inland and coastal flooding, coastal erosion rates, wind damage to coastal forests, and wetland loss. Major hurricanes also pose a severe risk to people, personal property, and public infrastructure in the Southeast, and this risk is likely to be exacerbated.393,394 Hurricanes have their greatest impact at the coastal margin where they make landfall, causing storm surge, severe beach erosion, inland flooding, and wind-related casualties for both cultural and natural resources. Some of these impacts extend farther inland, affecting larger areas. Recent examples of societal vulnerability to severe hurricanes include Katrina and Rita in 2005, which were responsible for the loss of more than 1,800 lives and the net loss of 217 square miles of low-lying coastal marshes and barrier islands in southern Louisiana.390,396
Ecological thresholds are expected to be crossed throughout the region, causing major disruptions to ecosystems and to the benefits they provide to people.
Atlantic Hurricane Main Development Region
August through October, 1900 to 2008
Ecological systems provide numerous important services that have high economic and cultural value in the Southeast. Ecological effects cascade among both living and physical systems, as illustrated in the following examples of ecological disturbances that result in abrupt responses, as opposed to gradual and proportional responses to warming:
- The sudden loss of coastal landforms that serve as a storm-surge barrier for natural resources and as a homeland for coastal communities (such as in a major hurricane).254,390
- An increase in sea level can have no apparent effect until an elevation is reached that allows widespread, rapid saltwater intrusion into coastal forests and freshwater aquifers.398
- Lower soil moisture and higher temperatures leading to intense wildfires or pest outbreaks (such as the southern pine beetle) in southeastern forests;399 intense droughts leading to the drying of lakes, ponds, and wetlands; and the local or global extinction of riparian and aquatic species.142
- A precipitous decline of wetland-dependent coastal fish and shellfish populations due to the rapid loss of coastal marsh.400
Quality of life will be affected by increasing heat stress, water scarcity, severe weather events, and reduced availability of insurance for at-risk properties.
Over the past century, the southeastern â€œsunbeltâ€ has attracted people, industry, and investment. The population of Florida more than doubled during the past three decades, and growth rates in most other southeastern states were in the range of 45 to 75 percent (see population map, page 55). Future population growth and the quality of life for existing residents is likely to be affected by the many challenges associated with climate change, such as reduced insurance availability, increased insurance cost, and increases in water scarcity, sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and heat stress. Some of these problems, such as increasing heat and declining air quality, will be especially acute in cities.
Three different types of adaptation to sea-level rise are available for low-lying coastal areas.173,269 One is to move buildings and infrastructure farther inland to get out of the way of the rising sea. Another is to accommodate rising water through changes in building design and construction, such as elevating buildings on stilts. Flood insurance programs even require this in some areas with high probabilities of floods. The third adaptation option is to try to protect existing development by building levees and river flood control structures. This option is being pursued in some highly vulnerable areas of the Gulf and South Atlantic coasts. Flood control structures can be designed to be effective in the face of higher sea level and storm surge. Some hurricane levees and floodwalls were not just replaced after Hurricane Katrina, they were redesigned to withstand higher storm surge and wave action.401
The costs and environmental impacts of building such structures can be significant. Furthermore, building levees can actually increase future risks.269 This is sometimes referred to as the levee effect or the safe-development paradox. Levees that provide protection from, for example, the storm surge from a Category 3 hurricane, increase real and perceived safety and thereby lead to increased development. This increased development means there will be greater damage if and when the storm surge from a Category 5 hurricane tops the levee than there would have been if no levee had been constructed.252
In addition to levees, enhancement of key highways used as hurricane evacuation routes and improved hurricane evacuation planning is a common adaptation underway in all Gulf Coast states.217 Other protection options that are being practiced along low-lying coasts include the enhancement and protection of natural features such as forested wetlands, saltmarshes, and barrier islands.390