Report outlines climate change impact in Southeast

More fiercely hot days, more floods and drought — the Southeast already is feeling the effects of climate warming, and it’s going to cause a cascade of trouble, from more disease to fewer trees and crops and less water.

That’s the takeaway from “Climate of the Southeast United States: Variability, Change, Impacts, and Vulnerability,” the first report of its kind to focus on the region. It was released Tuesday.

For the Lowcountry, the “core finding” is that the combination of sea rise and more extreme weather such as powerful hurricanes and rain floods will disrupt lives and commerce, including little regarded impacts such as damage to the transportation system.

The report brings together findings and computer modeling from more than 100 researchers. It doesn’t break much new ground; it does lay overall groundwork of potential impacts and respond to them.

But it makes a few startling points, including raising the possibility that weather extremes could cause more of the treed South to turn to grass savanna.

“One of the interesting (findings) is just how variable to impact is. The big message is, we’re already seeing climate variability, it’s going to become more substantial and pose a serious threat to health, economy and our way of life,” said geographer Kristen Dow, a University of South Carolina professor and one of the report’s editors.

The report works from existing studies indicating problems during the century such as:

An average temperature rise of 3-4 degrees Centigrade, or 5.4 to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit.

As many as 25-35 more days of 95-degree-plus days on the average.

Sea rise from 1 to 5 feet.

It also details the complexity of the impacts, stating for instance that increased carbon in the air could help plant growth, but cautioning that the benefit could be wiped out by other impacts.

The coastal area was particularly difficult to get a read on, because of balancing factors such as sea breeze that would moderate high temperatures, Dow said.

“There are some things about the coast that are difficult to capture because of the land-sea interface. There are uncertainties, but the big picture is becoming increasingly clear,” she said. The most worrisome aspect for her is “just thinking about what we have to do next.”

Asked about the difficulty selling the report in a region where any number of people reject or resist the science indicating climate warming, Lynne Carter, Louisiana State University coastal sustainability director, said, “It’s isn’t a case whether it’s real. It’s a case where most people can see that it’s happening.”

After years of resistance in the agriculture community over the past few years, more farmers are asking Keith Ingram, University of Florida associate research scientist, what to do about impacts, he said.

“They might not call it climate change, but they see we’ve got a problem and we have to fix it,” he said.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

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