Climate change takes aim at South

sfretwell@thestate.comNovember 13, 2013 

Poisoned seafood, scorched forests, flooded homes and crumbling bridges are just some of the problems the Southeast can expect as the earth’s climate changes and temperatures heat up in future decades, according to a study released Tuesday.

The 341-page report, based on the expertise of more than 100 scientists and researchers, is considered the most comprehensive study to date of how global warming is affecting the South – and what Southerners can expect.

The findings are worth paying attention to, especially in high-growth states like South Carolina, researchers said. South Carolina’s population increased by more than 15 percent from 2000 to 2010, ranking behind only North Carolina, Georgia and Florida, the report said.

“There are going to be more people here to experience the impacts the climate models are projecting,” said Kirstin Dow, a University South Carolina geography professor and one of the report’s primary authors.

By mid-century, Columbia and most of South Carolina can expect more days above 95 degrees in the summer, Dow said. Across the Southeast, heat waves are projected to be more frequent, with the number of consecutive days exceeding 95 degrees rising by anywhere from 97 percent to more than 200 percent.

Overall, average annual temperatures in the region could rise by up to nine degrees this century, with summer temperatures increasing by more than 10 degrees, the study said.

Research shows that average temperatures already have risen 2 degrees in the region during the past 40 years, with temperatures the warmest on record between 2000 and 2010.

Global warming is a topic of intense political debate because controlling it could lead to more regulation of industries, but scientific data and research show that the phenomenon is virtually indisputable.

Since the rise of industrialization more than a century ago, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from man-made activities have built up in the atmosphere and trapped heat, which has increased worldwide temperatures. That, in turn, is contributing to an array of problems, from rising seas to drier weather.

Scientists involved in the southeastern climate report said rising earth temperatures can’t be ignored in the 11-state area they studied. Researchers suggested cutting the amount of greenhouse gas pollution in the South, making buildings more energy efficient and protecting wide swaths of forests to soak up carbon dioxide.

Dow said higher temperatures could have a variety of impacts on the region and South Carolina, ranging from more diseases in fish to making air quality worse in the Columbia area as smog-forming pollutants rise. Rising temperatures and drought will make crops thirstier. That will make it harder to grow crops without irrigation, the study said.

Even so, state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley was skeptical about the consequences for South Carolina.

“If you’re talking about (rising temperatures) causing disease and famine, and so forth, that’s simply not the case,’’ he said. “All you have to do is look to other states with a slightly warmer climate.’’

“There’s a reason why a lot of people move to Florida.’’

Some of the themes in the voluminous climate report build on past research and cover ground laid out in a S.C. Department of Natural Resources report earlier this year. Tuesday’s study, however, is much broader.

The southeastern study includes 14 chapters, looking at various aspects of global warming in the region. Those working on the study included university scientists and federal researchers from departments such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Unsafe seafood is one global warming threat people should pay attention to, researchers said.

The study said a toxin associated with warm oceans and tropical fish has in the past decade been found in South Carolina. This suggests the disease, known as ciguatera, is moving north in association with rising sea surface temperatures, the study said. The disease is tied to the spread of toxic algae blooms.

“Climate change may lead to the expansion of ciguatera fish poisoning in tropical areas, as well as more temperate zones,’’ the report said.

The study doesn’t mention a specific case of ciguatera poisoning, but in 2004, researchers found that a married couple became ill from eating a toxin-tinged barracuda caught along the South Carolina coast. Ciguatera poisoning can cause nausea, vomiting and neurological problems, and in extreme cases, can last for years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Oysters and clams also are at risk of contracting diseases related to warmer water temperatures. Researchers say marine pathogens known as vibrio are a threat. Infections associated with vibrio are expanding in Gulf Coast shellfish, which are eaten in South Carolina and other non-gulf states. The trend is tied to the number of days when water temperatures rise above typical levels. Some types of vibrio can cause diarrhea and liver disease.

Other impacts expected by the end of the 21st century, include:

•  More wildfires. Higher temperatures are expected to dry out forests, making them more susceptible to catching fire. Wildfires have in recent years presented a notable threat in the Myrtle Beach area, where homes have burned to the ground.

•  Worn out roads and wrecked bridges. Hotter conditions are expected to make asphalt heat up and roads to wear down, while rising seas will threaten to wash out bridges in coastal areas.

More devastating hurricanes. The number and intensity of hurricanes is expected to increase as ocean waters get warmer.

•  Rising sea levels. The ocean is expected to rise 1-5 feet by the end of the 21st century, making seaside property more vulnerable to storm surges and flooding. The exact rate of sea level rise will depend, in part, on how fast the polar ice sheets melt.

•  Toxic algae blooms. At least five different varieties of marine toxins have moved into the region or shifted northward toward the Carolinas. These toxins not only can threaten fish, but some can cause respiratory problems or rashes in people exposed to them.

Dying sea life. Increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could make the ocean more acidic, which would likely limit the growth of corals, shellfish and crustaceans.

Keith Ingram, a University of Florida researcher and co-author of the study, said some past skeptics of global warming appear to be softening their positions.

“Over the last couple of years we’ve started getting more and more questions from farmers about climate change because they see it,’’ said Ingram, who studies agriculture at Florida. “We see the same thing in coastal communities, where they see flooding already.”

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