Report outlines impact of climate change on Virginia, Southeast

Longer, hotter summers, more heat waves, more floods, water supply stresses, worsening air quality, more crop damage, an uptick in asthma and respiratory ills — this is a taste of what Hampton Roads and the rest of the Southeast can expect as the region bears the brunt of rapid climate change, according to a new report.

And, the report states, all those impacts are in addition to a big hike in sea level and more intense hurricanes that climate scientists have warned for years could devastate the mid-Atlantic.

"I think people should be really concerned, especially in the coastal areas," climate expert Chip Konrad said in a recent phone interview.

Konrad is a principal author of "Climate of the Southeast United States: Variability, Change, Impacts and Vulnerability," a 358-page report that compiles existing research and climate models — a collaboration among three Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessment centers funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He is also director of the Southeast Regional Climate Center and an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Among the report's projections:

• A hike in sea level by 1 to 5 feet by the end of the century, with increased coastal flooding and tidal surges;

• Average annual temperatures warming by as much as 9 degrees fahrenheit through the rest of the century;

• Fewer cold days, with the freeze-free season extended by as much as a month by mid-century;

• More days with temperatures exceeding 95 degrees, and a doubling or tripling in the number of heat waves;

• More crop damage from heat stress and drought; and

• Declining air quality, and an increase in pollen counts.

"The basic finding," said climate expert Keith Ingram "is that climate variability is already affecting the Southeastern U.S. and a changing climate is projected to increasingly affect the region in the next 20 years and beyond."

Ingram is director of the Southeast Climate Consortium with the department of agricultural and biological engineering at the University of Florida.

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Scientists have increasingly sounded alarms over the various impacts of climate change for years. While a changing climate is part of the planet's normal cycle, many scientists today believe the rapid escalation of that change — in particular warmer temperatures and rising seas — is largely due to dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. They are trying to get a handle on what changes to expect from one region to the next.

"When we look at these general circulation models, we see a different range of scenarios," Konrad said.

The interior of the region is expected to warm the most, for instance, while the report says coastal temperatures could be moderated by factors such as sea winds.

And not all changes associated with climate change are necessarily bad, Konrad said. But they could come with trade-offs.

Residents might welcome fewer snow and ice events, for instance, but there are many crops that need a certain amount of chilling hours in winter. And lower heating bills could be offset by an increase in air-conditioning costs.

Areas that get more precipitation can also expect more flooding, which would impact water quality and wetlands.

Konrad said air quality would suffer with higher temperatures and more sunny days, which control the amount of ozone in the atmosphere. General circulation models project more days with a stagnant atmosphere, so pollutants can build up in populated areas with no ventilation to disperse it.

The report didn't specifically address the impact on wildlife, but a report earlier in the year from the National Wildlife Federation noted that climate change is "the single biggest threat to wildlife in this century."

According to "Wildlife in a Warming World: Confronting the Climate Crisis," the biggest economic hit in Virginia could be on its $50 billion agriculture industry, which is not only heavily dependent on weather but on pollinators — e.g., butterflies and bees — that are highly sensitive to changes in climate.

Temperature increases are already having an impact, the NWF report said, from the Shenandoah salamander and brook trout in higher elevations to shellfish in the Chesapeake Bay.

Konrad said their report is geared toward many audiences, from residents to industry to policymakers.

"So they can be more on the radar, and can be adapting and thinking about the future," Konrad said. "I think there's something in there for everybody."

Dietrich can be reached by phone at 757-247-7892.