The Carolinas Face a Climate Trifecta: Floods, Fire, and Heat

The National Climate Assessment’s outlook for the two coastal states is daunting, but local leaders are starting to dig in for a fight.

Flooding in the streets of Charleston, South Carolina, after record rains pummeled parts of the East Coast

Credit: Chuck Burton/Associated Press

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky over Charleston, South Carolina, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, but the flood came anyway, inundating the streets of the coastal city. A full moon and a high tide were all it took for the tide in Charleston’s historic harbor to reach its sixth-highest level on record, 8.76 feet, and then roll into town. Traffic stopped and Charlestonians waded through the ephemeral rivers as their city’s drains and mobile pumps began guiding the water back to the sea. Life resumed its normal pace a handful of hours later, but such disruptions could become more and more commonplace in years to come.

“What Charleston saw some weekends back could become an everyday kind of event and happen dozens of time a year for seemingly no reason,” says Billy Sweet, an oceanographer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “That’s the challenge these communities face.”

Just a day before Charleston’s sunny-day flood, the federal government released its Fourth National Climate Assessment. Certified by NOAA, the U.S. Department of Defense, NASA, and 10 other federal agencies, the report’s 29 chapters and 1,500 pages detail an increasingly dire and pricey portrait of what climate change could bring to the country—and North and South Carolina sit square in the crosshairs of several threats.

The document’s message for the Southeast is clear, says Adam Terando, research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, who was the lead author of the report’s Southeast chapter. Climate change is happening now, he says, and some impacts will continue for decades even if all greenhouse gas emissions were to cease today. But while alarming, the report’s predictions aren’t written in stone. Much of what climate change brings to the region will depend on how we collectively manage our carbon emissions globally—and prepare our communities locally.

Floods: From Both Ends

Heavier rains are falling from above: Since the 1980s, the Southeast has seen more days with three or more inches of rainfall than the previous 70 years on record. And the seas are rising: The world’s oceans are expected to rise an average of 26 inches by 2100. That number may be even higher in the Southeast, says NOAA’s Sweet, and the seas off Charleston could come up as much as four feet. This is due to multiple factors, including subsidence (the settling or sinking of land) and a projected weakening of the Gulf Stream, which could cause sea levels to rise faster on the East Coast than elsewhere.

Flooding in North Charleston, South Carolina, in the aftermath of Hurricane Joaquin in 2015
Credit: Ryan Johnson/Flickr

With higher seas comes more flooding. Back in the 1970s, Charleston had an average of two tidal floods a year. In 2014, the city experienced 11. According to the national assessment, by 2045 Charleston could see as many as 180 such floods in a single year. In addition to affecting Charleston’s island communities, the swelling Atlantic would swamp land along the edge of the city’s peninsula, compromise roads, overwhelm storm sewers, and raise insurance prices as high as the tides. The report estimates that by 2050, the annual price tag for sea level rise and storm surge across the Southeast could reach a whopping $60 billion. As for Charleston, each of its flood events already costs the city about $12.4 million.

So it’s little wonder that Charleston and its citizens are worried about flooding and sea level rise. A coalition called Fix Flooding First has been pushing for methods to decrease flooding risks, such as increasing green spaces that promote drainage, and the city has been helping homeowners relocate out of flood-prone areas. Charleston is also implementing a sea level rise strategy for the next 50 years that includes a variety of conventional interventions like seawalls and pumps. When published in 2015, the plan assumed a rise of 1.5 to 2.5 feet. The January 2019 update now projects an additional half foot.

Fighting Fire With Fire

The Southeast is also facing fire. The region already has the most wildfires in the country, an average of 45,000 per year (the West has the most large wildfires), and more are expected with rising temperatures and increasing droughts.

In the fall of 2016, an extended dry period combined with arson sparked more than 30 wildfires that burned across 100,000 acres of forest in eight states in southern Appalachia. Fifteen of those fires occurred in western North Carolina. Scientists cannot attribute any single event to climate change with absolute certainty, says Andy Tait, a forester who helps North Carolina landowners implement practices that help conserve the diversity of Appalachian forests. Still, it is clear that more heat and more drought bring more fire.

A wildfire burning along the Appalachian Trail near the Georgia–North Carolina border
Credit: Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Associated Press

But we can fight fire with fire. According to the climate report, the Southeast already treats the largest area of forested land in the country with prescribed fires, and expanding the practice can tamp down the wildfire risks. Controlled wildfires help reduce the amount of fuel (i.e., vegetation) on the forest floor and help bring back the drought- and fire-tolerant trees, such as oaks and pines, that once thrived in this neck of the woods.

The Department of Defense at Fort Benning in Georgia has been testing this approach. After tripling the size of its prescribed burn area over the years between 1982 and 2012, the fort began experiencing about half the number of seasonal wildfires. Prescribed burning is just one example of an adaptive measure that can help buffer communities from some of climate change’s most devastating impacts. On a smaller scale, southerners can also follow these tips to help lower their property’s wildfire risk.

Hotter Than a Pepper Sprout

The Southeast is already known for its warm climate, but it’s about to get even warmer. According to the national assessment, 61 percent of the Southeast’s major cities are already experiencing more frequent or longer heat waves, and southern-fried heat indexes will continue to rise in coming decades. Of the five U.S. cities with the most pronounced heat trends (with heat waves increasing in frequency, length, and severity), three are in the South, and Raleigh, North Carolina, tops the list. (The other two are Birmingham and New Orleans.) Climate Central reports that on average, summers in the Raleigh-Durham area have more than twice as many unusually hot days than they did in the early 1970s.

Those living in rural communities will also be sweating it out—especially laborers, farmers, and anyone else who works outside. The national assessment predicts that high heat in the region could force an annual loss of 570 million labor hours by 2090, with a value of $47 billion. That’s the greatest loss of work hours due to heat-related illnesses anywhere in the country.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” says Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit organization that advocates for science-based policies. According to the national assessment chapter on decreasing climate risks by cutting carbon pollution, which Ekwurzel coauthored, curbing carbon pollution could cut national labor costs in half and lower heat mortality by 60 percent.

“What we’re really talking about is saving lives,” she says. “Luckily, this is a report that many leaders in business, insurance, engineering, water planning, and energy will be consulting for weeks, months, and years ahead, because what’s important is that it has made the case, more than ever, that it’s in everyone’s interest to reduce global emissions.”

The Trump administration released the Fourth National Climate Assessment on Black Friday, likely in the hope that nobody would notice. (It didn’t work.) When asked about his own government’s findings, Trump dismissed the assessment with an “I don’t believe it.” Thankfully, many city and state leaders, even in the largely conservative South, do.

After Hurricane Florence caused devastating flooding in the state last fall, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper signed an executive order to support clean energy resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2025. Charlotte, North Carolina, is among 25 U.S. cities chosen for the American Cities Climate Challenge, a two-year program working to help municipalities curb their carbon emissions and foster climate resilience within their communities, and the leaders of 11 North Carolina and four South Carolina cities have signed the Mayors Climate Pledge to do what they can to uphold the Paris Agreement. All this action comes not a moment too soon. As Columbia, South Carolina, Mayor Stephen Benjamin recently told USA Today, “We in the Carolinas are forced to deal with the realities of climate change every single day.”

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