Where Will Climate Change Impact The US? Everywhere.

25:31 minutes

looking across a lake to massive smoke plumes obscuring mountain ranges, taken around dusk
The Howe Ridge Fire in Glacier National Park in August of 2018. Credit: National Park Service

Last week, the government issued Part II of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a report describing how climate change will impact the future of the U.S. But its release escaped most of the public’s attention. It was published on Black Friday, while most of us were still digesting our turkey and stuffing.

It describes how every part of our society and every state in our country will be impacted by a warmer world. Not just by hurricanes, floods and wildfires, but by more rainfall in the Midwest, thawing permafrost in Alaska, and drier air in the Southeast.

Ira is joined by Bob Kopp, Director of the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences to discuss the areas of the country where the results of climate change maybe aren’t grabbing headlines, but are still having a profound impact on society.

Find out what the report says about your region’s climate future:

Further Reading

Read a summary of the 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment.

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Segment Guests

Bob Kopp

Bob Kopp is a climate scientist and Director of the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Jim Angel

Jim Angel is the State Climatologist for Illinois, based at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign in Champaign, Illinois.

Victoria Herrmann

Victoria Herrmann is President and Managing Director of The Arctic Institute in Washington D.C..

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Last week, the government issued an important report on how climate change will affect the future of the US. Perhaps you heard about it, maybe you didn’t. The Fourth National Climate Assessment was buried during Thanksgiving weekend to hide some of its most important conclusions. 

It describes how every area of our society and every state in our country will be impacted by a warmer world, and not just by hurricanes and floods and wildfires, but by more rainfall in the Midwest, thawing permafrost in Alaska, drier air in the southeast. This hour we’ll be focusing on those areas of the country where the results of climate change maybe aren’t grabbing headlines, but are still having a profound impact on the US society. 

And if you want to know how your area of the country will be impacted by climate change, you can check out this report for yourself. It’s super easy to read, it really is, and it’s important that you do. Just go to ScienceFriday.com/climatereport. Click on your own region there. ScienceFriday.com/climatereport. Joining me now to help us break all this down is Bob Kopp, Climate Scientist and Director of the Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Welcome to Science Friday. 

BOB KOPP: Hi, Ira. It’s a pleasure to be here. 

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. A lot of news about the report this week has centered around how President Trump tried to bury the assessment over the Thanksgiving holiday, and then said he did not believe in the conclusions of the report. When, in fact, the assessment is put together by 13 offices of the federal government, and has taken years to put together. 

BOB KOPP: Yeah, this is a report that’s mandated by Congress to happen every four years. It involved about 300 authors on the second volume that came out this year. I was an author on the first volume that came out last year. And underwent a very extensive review process involving the public experts, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. And so really represents a state of the art assessment about what the scientific literature has to say about climate change and its impacts on the United States. 

IRA FLATOW: Give us a short synopsis. You say you were author of Volume 1. What did Volume 1 say compared to Volume 2? 

BOB KOPP: Yeah, so Volume 1 covered the physical science of climate change– the physical science basis for what we know about how climate change is and will impact the United States. Volume 2 fleshes out what exactly those impacts are on people and ecosystems. And it’s a little bit of a hard report to talk about because Volume 2 is 1,600 pages of detail on how climate change is impacting the US. 

And so when you step back and ask, OK, well, what are the main messages? They’re the same messages that you will have heard from climate reports over the last couple of decades. Climate change is real, it’s caused by humans, it’s happening now, it’s having impacts on us now, and those impacts are becoming more severe with every ton of carbon dioxide we emit into the atmosphere. But it’s not too late to avoid the worst possible impacts by bringing our net greenhouse gas emissions to zero and by taking proactive measures to adapt to the climate change impacts we can’t avoid. And this report really brings a lot of detail to what those impacts are here and in the future. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, that’s good that you say that, because I want to go to some of those places that are being impacted. And let’s go first to the Midwest. Not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of regions impacted by climate change. But how will a warmer climate impact farms and fields in these states? Here to tell us that is Jim Angel, State Climatologist for Illinois, located at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champagne. He was the lead author of the report’s chapter on climate change impacts in the Midwest. Welcome to Science Friday. 

JIM ANGEL: Yes. Thanks for having me. 

IRA FLATOW: Can you see already how climate change has impacted the states in the Midwest? 

JIM ANGEL: Oh, very much so. We’ve been having conversation with farm groups for a long time about climate change in the Midwest. The primary impacts right now so far have been on more rainfall and precipitation, in general, and more heavy rain events. So if you have more rainfall, you have to deal with more wet conditions throughout the growing season. Heavier rainfall events also increase the soil erosion and loss of nutrients. 

So a big thing that we’re dealing with a lot, almost every year now, is that the springs are too wet, and so you get the planting delays. And then sometimes if you do plant, it gets flooded out, and so we have to replant. Also, when you go back in the fields, if it’s too wet, you can compact the soils. So there’s a number of headaches not only planting, but also the costs start to go up as well. 

IRA FLATOW: How will increased temperatures affect the types of crops that are successful in the future? 

JIM ANGEL: Yeah, so corn and soybeans are our primary crops. We also do wheat and other things as well, and a lot of specialty crops. But corn is especially sensitive to really hot weather. As we move into the future, we’ll see more of the really hot days, the heat waves that affect other parts of the country already. And those are going to drive corn production both northward and maybe a little bit westward. And we’re already seeing that. They’re growing corn in North Dakota, which 20 or 30 years ago was pretty rare, but now it’s become much more common. And so, yeah, we’re slowly starting to see the shift. 

IRA FLATOW: Now, let me quote to you a little– one of the paragraphs that says, “Compared to other regions, where worsening heat is also expected to occur, the Midwest is projected to have the largest increase in extreme temperature related premature deaths under the higher scenario.” So human health– just even people– you talk about the farms, people working in the fields, people living in their homes. 

JIM ANGEL: Exactly. Yeah, that’s a very big concern moving forward. We’ve already had issues with heat waves in the past. The infamous 1995 heat wave in Chicago that killed over 700 people. So we have had heat waves and that’s going to continue into the future, and that’s very problematic. Obviously, very hard on humans, and livestock, and the natural environment as well. And so that’s a big concern of mine going forward is the increased heat. 

IRA FLATOW: The Midwest, Bob, is experiencing more rain, while there are droughts and wildfires further west. Are we going to continue to see that during– as the world warms? Is that going to continue? 

BOB KOPP: Yeah, so one of the strong predictions with respect to rainfall is in the Northeast and Midwest, where we are already seeing and expect to see an increase in the amount of rain that’s falling in these really intense events. 

IRA FLATOW: Jim, how do farmers feel about climate change? Are they engaged with the idea? Did they admit that it’s happening? Can they deny what they see around them? 

JIM ANGEL: Many farmers are actually very well engaged in climate change. Now, important point is that sometimes they don’t call it that. Sometimes they talk about weather trends or changing weather patterns. Sometimes they don’t like to say the words climate change, but that’s what they’re talking about. And so it’s one of these things that doesn’t matter where you stand, if it’s impacting you economically, you’ve got to address it. So that’s what we’re seeing. The response is the fact that they’re already seen at the farm level. 

IRA FLATOW: Did we learn anything good about how the Midwest is doing from the assessment? Any positives going to come out of this? 

JIM ANGEL: There are responses. So for heavy rain events and more wet conditions where there’s increased use of tile drainage off of fields, but it’s also more projects looking at cover crops. And one I like really a lot is something at Iowa State where they’re looking at putting native plants in the waterways– the natural waterways– to help not only reduce runoff, but also keep those nutrients on the fields. 

IRA FLATOW: Our number 844-724-8255. We want to hear from you if you’re watching climate change and the effects if you’re living in the Midwest or anywhere else. 844-724-8255. Also, you can tweet us @scifri. Bob, is this a mitigation strategy in the report that can be implemented at a larger scale? 

BOB KOPP: Yeah, so the report talks about two main ways to manage the risk of climate change. So one is the adaptation-type approaches that we were just talking about. The other, of course, is reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The most reliable way to cut off the tail of some of these most extreme outcomes is to bring our emissions down. And one of the clear messages that comes out of Volume I of the report is that to stabilize the climate at any level of warming we ultimately need to bring our net greenhouse gas emissions to zero, so that any CO2 we put into the atmosphere is balanced by CO2 we’re taking out. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, well, thank you very much for taking the time to be with us, Jim. 

JIM ANGEL: Thank you. 

IRA FLATOW: Jim Angel is State Climatologist for Illinois and one of the authors of the Fourth National Climate Assessment. So we’re going to move around the country a little bit, and now we’re going to turn our attention north to Alaska, where we are following that large earthquake that struck today. And if any important updates are happening, we will bring them to you. 

Sometimes this is a reminder that part of the US is actually located in the Arctic. And according to this latest National Assessment, Alaska’s climate is changing much faster than any other states with some significant consequences. Here to tell us about those is Dr. Victoria Herrmann. She’s the President and Managing Director of the Arctic Institute based in Washington. She reviewed the chapter on Alaska for this most recent report. Welcome to Science Friday. 

VICTORIA HERRMANN: Thanks for having me, Ira. 

IRA FLATOW: The report mentions that Alaska’s arctic coastline is eroding at more than 59 feet a year. It says, “Longer sea ice-free seasons, higher ground temperatures, and relative sea-level rise are expected to worsen flooding and accelerate erosion.” That’s amazing. 

VICTORIA HERRMANN: That’s exactly– yeah, it’s pretty incredible. And we see because Alaska is warming at twice the rate of the continental United States, we have extraordinary sea ice melt. Usually fall storms come with big waves that can break a mile out onto that ice, but with no ice those waves are crashing directly into the shoreline, eroding it at an unprecedented rate. 

IRA FLATOW: And so do these folks who are impacted have to be relocated right now? 

VICTORIA HERRMANN: Currently, there are 31 villages across Alaska that the US Army Corps of Engineers has identified as an immediate danger from erosion and flooding. Now, four of those are in imminent risk and need to be relocated. Three of them are already seeking funds to relocate. And one has decided to protect in place, try to stay where they are. 

IRA FLATOW: And so I imagine that number is going to increase with climate change. 

VICTORIA HERRMANN: Absolutely. There are about 40% of US tribes located in Alaska. That’s 229, most of which are in remote villages, so they don’t have access to roads. That means that relocation, managed retreat is going to be a lot harder when you don’t have any access to transportation infrastructure. 

IRA FLATOW: Bob, do you agree this is a sign of things to come? 

BOB KOPP: Yeah, and thinking about how people may end up moving and what sort of migration we expect to see associated with climate change, is really one of the big factors that the research community is trying to get its hands on right now. 

IRA FLATOW: And it’s not going to be just Alaska. Alaska is the canary in the coal mine for the rest of the shoreline around the country. 

BOB KOPP: Yeah, I mean, it’s a somewhat different problem in Alaska, because it’s more the losing of the sea ice and the erosion than it is the effects of sea-level rise. But everywhere is affected by climate change in some way. 

IRA FLATOW: Victoria– go ahead, I’m sorry. 

VICTORIA HERRMANN: Just to note that there are already communities in the continental US that are actively relocating. So Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana has already received funding to relocate. And you have several communities in Washington State that are seeking partial relocations due to the impacts of climate change. 

IRA FLATOW: And it’s interesting, Victoria, we’ve heard a lot about wildfires in California in recent weeks, but Alaska faces some of the same challenges due to climate change. Tell us about what’s happening inland. 

VICTORIA HERRMANN: That’s absolutely right. Usually, when we think of Alaska and climate change, we think of the coast, we think of ice. But terrestrial systems, our inland communities in Alaska, are also seeing devastating and dramatic climate impacts. Much of that has to do with permafrost thaw and changing ecosystems. So because we have different rainfall patterns that are evolving with climate change and permafrost thaw, the very ground that has been frozen for centuries starting to thaw, you have different variations for climate change to affect wildfires. They’re spreading farther north and they’re becoming more intense like we’re seeing in California. 

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. And Bob and Victoria, not only when you get thawing of the permafrost, that also releases methane that’s been trapped there. Correct? 

BOB KOPP: Yes. That’s true. 

IRA FLATOW: So that’s another part. When more of the country is under threat from wildfires, Bob, does that constrain the amount of resources available to fight them? I mean, if there are so many going on at once. 

BOB KOPP: Yeah, I mean, I think this is also a general problem. We have not just wildfires, but there’s wildfires, there’s coastal flooding, it’s these inland rainfall. All of these are competing demands for the resources we have to deal with disasters. So there’s how do we share firefighters. There’s also how do we share recovery funds. And we saw last year with the three hurricanes how easy it is to tax some of those resources. 

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to Moab, Utah– one of my favorite places. Welcome, John. 

JOHN: Oh, hi. Phone went blank for a second, I almost hung up. Here, let’s make the sound a little better. I have owned the same house in Moab, Utah for 30 years. And 30 years ago, when I bought the house, this was a hot, dry, desert-like place with 3% relative humidity in the summertime. Not a cloud in sight sometimes for six months. Boy, things have changed like you wouldn’t believe. 

We get humidity in the 50% to 80%– relative humidity. Hot, humid summers. Actually, cooler air temperature, but of course, you feel the heat more with humidity. I moved from back east to escape this and it seems to have followed me out here. I just wanted to mention the climate change I see is a change in the weather patterns that moves the water around and perhaps there are areas which are suffering from drought and then wildfire, like out in California, we’re getting their water. 

IRA FLATOW: Gotcha. Let me get a quick comment before we have to take the break. Bob, you agree? 

BOB KOPP: Well, I think one of the key issues we have to focus on is where the water is moving. I don’t know in the case of Moab, how much of that is large-scale climate trends versus, say, what you’ve seen in Arizona, New Mexico, over the past several decades, where you just bring in more plants that increase the amount of rain taking down the soil. But tracking humidity and the combined effects of heat and humidity on human health, and the ability to work outdoors, ability to thrive, is a key area that’s discussed in this report and a topic of research. 

IRA FLATOW: Victoria, what do you say about that? 

VICTORIA HERRMANN: Yeah, I think it’s of course a bit different in Alaska. But the changes in water availability and also the impacts on water infrastructure are only poised to get worse. So oftentimes, it’s not just the humidity, the water around us naturally, but also how climate change is impacting our ability for safe and affordable water access. 

IRA FLATOW: There is some positive note, at least in the Arctic regions, about the economic value opening up sea lanes where ice used to be. 

VICTORIA HERRMANN: Economic value in relation to climate change is about scales. So there is more access across the Arctic to shipping lanes, having the ability to cut shipping from Eastern to Western markets on a much shorter scale. But that’s the global economy. How does that impact in individual remote village that is seeing immediate climate impacts? How much of that revenue generation is going to Alaska natives? There’s a great variation in inequity between the economic value of opening sea lines and how it’s impacting American citizens in the far north. 

IRA FLATOW: Good way to put it. Victoria Herrmann is President and Managing Director of the Arctic Institute based in Washington. Thank you for taking time to be with us today. 


IRA FLATOW: When we come back, we’re going to wrap up our discussion of the Climate Assessment and talk about whether policymakers can be persuaded to take action. And more of your calls, 844-724-8255. We’ll be right back after this break. 

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about the Fourth National Climate Assessment and how climate change is set to impact the US in ways both big and small. My guest is Bob Kopp, Climate Scientist and Director of the Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Rutgers University. And we’ve been hearing from our listeners on social media about what climate change looks like where they live. 

Let me give you a few tweets that came in and for other social media. Susie on Facebook says, “I love to pick blackberries in the summer in Piedmont, North Carolina. I have not seen any make it since about 1999. The summers get too hot, the berries dry up on the vine, it’s difficult to grow vegetables for some of the same reasons.” Todd on Facebook says, “I live in Utah. Climate changes will significantly impact these snowy mountains that support and draw many people to relocate to Utah. I am anxious to know how drought and other natural disasters will influence human migration. Will there be a future when I have to relocate my family because of climate change?” 

Well, what do you say? 844-724-8255 is our number. Bob, what do you think of those Facebook notifications there? Bob? Oh, [LAUGHS] we lost Bob. Well, let’s go to the phones, because there are a lot of people who want to talk about this. Let’s go to Nick in Miami. Hi, Nick. Nick in Miami, are you there? And Ally in Miami, are you there? 

ALLY: Yes. I specifically wanted to ask– I was curious to know if the report covered the role of corporations on climate change, their impact. And specifically, are there policies currently that incentivize these companies to take a roll against it. I just recently– it’s my understanding that with deregulation, methane is allowed to be released at a higher level and that impacts climate change to a great degree. So I was a little bit curious about that. 

IRA FLATOW: It’s a good question. The report is– the interesting thing about this report is that it’s very easy to read. I mean, you’d normally think about government reports as being written in bureaucratic gobbledygook. But this report is written in such easy to read English that if you want to know any answers to the questions that you have– and actually, the report is up on our website at ScienceFriday.com/climatereport. You can read the whole report, and then you can actually click on the region where you live and see how the climate report is going to impact your region. So any of these questions you have, are really going to be interesting to answer there. 

All right, we have some tweets that are coming in. We had a tweet come in that says, “A fast ice melt at the pole. Anyone worked out the earthquakes this will spawn, all that weight removed?” I don’t think today’s earthquake in Alaska– a huge earthquake– it’s a 7.0. It’s not quite as big as that 1964 one that was 9.2 that created such havoc. 

That is an interesting question. All that snow that’s going to be melting in the Arctic regions, which don’t have land on them, in the South and the North Pole. But certainly, in North and northern regions of the Arctic countries that surround them– Greenland– I mean, all that melting will it have any real problems? Will it lead to anything? Let’s go to another call. Let’s go to Chris in Springfield, Missouri. Hi, Chris. 

CHRIS: Hi. My biggest question is the climate report came from the United States, is this going [AUDIO OUT] China and India, is it going to be– are we going to talk more about the international effect? Because of the Western winds, as you know, it’s blowing a lot of that smog in China. They’re wearing masks. They can barely see each other. India, the pollution is ungodly the way it is. Is that going to be addressed through this particular report in any way? 

IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting because this report covers– basically, it talks about the impact on the US, but the US is not isolated from the rest of the world. And this report is a series of four reports. This is only the second one of those four reports. And it’s going to– obviously the US– the region of the United States cannot be looked at as in a vacuum. But this basically is concentrating on regions in the United States and how it will impact them. Let’s see if we can go to Amanda in Kansas City, Missouri. Hi, Amanda. 

AMANDA: Hi, how are you? 

IRA FLATOW: Hi, there. 

AMANDA: Hi, so yeah, I live in Kansas City, Missouri now, but I’m from a small town in southwestern Kansas right on the Colorado border. And for years now– I still have a National Geographic issue in 1985, predicting maybe a 20-year supply left in the Ogallala Water Aquifer that feeds most of the high plains. Well, here we are more than 20 years later, and we’re still running dry wells out there. We’re coming up with nothing but sand. And now we have climate change further affecting things. 

And I’m wondering– this is another jump– but I’m wondering about the potential effects economically, and in our food supply, if we make a change from farming things like corn and wheat and other water heavy products to doing something like solar and wind, which are in abundance out there. 

IRA FLATOW: That’s a good question, because what kinds of crops, what kinds of livestock use the least amount of water? There are people who are saying if we get away from a meat-based economy, we could use a lot less water. Because I think the number for beef– I think it’s 50 gallons of water for every pound of beef. 

AMANDA: No, and even then how much of our food supply is corn-based? It’s a lot. 

IRA FLATOW: And we also have stories about the Saudis trying to buy up a lot of the land where their water rights to them. So what you’re basically– 

AMANDA: Yeah, there are already water wars out in the west. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, so you’re basically growing crops that are going to suck up your water and you’re going to ship them overseas, so you’re basically shipping water overseas. 

AMANDA: Exactly. 

IRA FLATOW: All right, thanks for talking about this very interesting issue. Of course, this is only the beginning of a discussion. And what’s interesting to me about this having talked about– we’ve been talking about this for years– is that climate change has hardly been on the mind of people. When you look at polls that are taken during election years about the most important things that are on their minds, you normally see that climate change or global warming is way down 6, 7, someplace else on the line there. 

But I think that this report has gotten people– and especially, the media which mostly ignores climate change stories– finally interested in talking about the impact of climate change and how real they’re going to be. And maybe there will be a really interesting discussion starting not only in the media, not only among farmers, not only about people, but maybe in Congress where the people will not be able to deny, and people will not bring a snowball into the Senate and say, how can it be warm out, look at the snow, it’s snowing in Washington. 

So I want to thank Bob Kopp. We lost the line with Bob Kopp. I want to thank him for taking time to be with us today. He was a Climate Scientist and Director of the Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Rutgers University. And as I say, if you want to know how your area of the country will be impacted, we encourage you to check out this report for yourself. It’s really easy to read as I say and we have it online. Just go to ScienceFriday.com/climatereport and you can click on your region.

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