SC already feeling climate change effects

Rising seas and higher temperatures are becoming a reality in South Carolina, according to a national scientific report on climate change released Tuesday.

Saying climate change has “moved firmly into the present,” the U.S. National Climate Assessment panel report catalogs the impacts of such changes, saying some would be beneficial “but many more are detrimental.”

In the American Southeast and Caribbean region, for example, heat is the story. The South will be “exceptionally vulnerable” to rising sea levels, extreme heat events, hurricanes and decreased water resources, the report said. Seven major ports in that region are vulnerable to sea level rise. And residents can expect a significant increase in the number of hot days – defined as 95 degrees or above – as well as decreases in freezing events.

“Large numbers of southeastern cities, roads, railways, ports, airports, oil and gas facilities and water supplies are vulnerable to the impacts of sea level rise,” the report concludes. Among the cities most at risk: Miami and Tampa, Fla., Charleston, New Orleans and Virginia Beach, Va.

The findings were the result of a three-year project involving more than 300 experts and top administration officials, including President Barack Obama’s science and technology adviser. The report was called for in Obama’s climate action plan, launched last year, and dovetails with a draft released last fall that highlighted many of the dangers facing the South – and South Carolina.

Parts of South Carolina are vulnerable to sea-level rise, particularly low-lying Charleston and high-growth Myrtle Beach, the report said.

Kirstin Dow, a University of South Carolina professor who helped write the report and who spoke to journalists Tuesday, said today’s flooding in areas such as Charleston are “tomorrow’s high tides.’’

Sea-level rise will continue to threaten the South’s booming coastal tourism industry, while leading to higher-insurance costs for property owners, she said. The projected costs associated with one foot of sea level rise by 2100 nationally are roughly $200 billion, the report said.

South Carolina and other states should feel the pinch of climate change by seeing more steamy summer days, fewer frosty winter days and possibly more intense storms, according to research in the report.

“The Southeastern region is exceptionally vulnerable to sea level rise, extreme heat events, and decreased water availability,’’ said Dow, professor of geography at USC and a lead author of the research agenda for the report’s science chapter. “This report reinforces the threat that climate change poses to the natural and built environment, including local economies.”

Aside from the Southeast, the report says that in the Midwest, longer growing seasons and rising carbon-dioxide levels will increase the yields of some crops, though those benefits will be progressively offset by extreme weather.

In the Great Plains, rising temperatures are leading to increased demands for water and energy. That might constrain development and increase competition for water among communities, agriculture and energy production.

In the Southwest, which in the report includes California, snowpack and streamflow amounts are projected to decline, decreasing the reliability of surface water supplies and threatening the region’s production of specialty crops. Warming, drought and insect outbreaks tied to climate change have increased wildfires.

In the Northwest, changes in snowmelt have been observed and will continue, reducing the supply of water. The combined impact of increasing wildfires, insect outbreaks and tree diseases has already caused widespread tree deaths and is “virtually certain to cause additional forest mortality by the 2040s and long-term transformation of forest landscapes.”

A draft of the report had previously been released, and the report’s authors received more than 4,000 public comments.

Climate-change skeptics attacked the report. The Cato Institute, a Washington-based libertarian research center, sent out its assessment Monday, saying the report “overly focuses on the supposed negative impacts from climate change while largely dismissing or ignoring the positives from climate change.”

It said the “bias . . . towards pessimism” has implications for the federal regulatory process because the report is cited as a primary source for the science of climate change in justifying federal regulations.

Since the U.S. National Climate Assessment “gets it wrong, so does everyone else,” Cato’s authors said.

As for hurricanes, projections suggest that warming will cause tropical storms to be fewer globally but stronger, with more Category 4 and Category 5 storms.

The report lays out climate-change scenarios that have affected or may affect different regions and sectors of the economy.

The state-by-state, region-by-region impacts are what White House officials said in a conference call Tuesday might help move the climate-change debate forward. Calling it “actionable science,” White House adviser John Podesta said on the conference call that the report would give people information on observed climate changes in their parts of the nation.

Staff writer Sammy Fretwell contributed to this story.

About the Southeast

The National Climate Assessment, released Tuesday, said the Southeast – and South Carolina – are among those areas already feeling the effects of climate change. Among other things, the report found the South is experiencing and will experience:

Fewer frosty winter days: That’s bad for fruit crops, such as apples, pears and blueberries that need some chilling periods.

Rising seas: That threatens to flood developed resorts and erode coastal wetlands that provide wildlife habitat. Myrtle Beach, one of the region’s fastest-growing communities, is among those of particular note. So is Charleston. Sea levels are projected to rise 1 to 4 feet in the region by the end of the century.

More hot summer days: By 2070, parts of South Carolina could experience up to 50 more days that exceed 95 degrees, compared to the period from 1971-2000. Climate maps show Columbia could have some of the largest numbers of sweltering days.

Polluted air: Ground-level ozone, a key ingredient in smog, is affecting the region and could lead to more air-pollution-related deaths.

Poisoned fish: Rising sea temperatures are associated with diseases in fish and shellfish. Some of these diseases had not been found in parts of the South’s coastal waters, including South Carolina, until recent years.

Invading plants: Plants not typically found in states such as South Carolina will spread as temperatures rise.

Increased wildfires: The Southeast leads the nation in the number of wildfires already, averaging 45,000 per year. Soaring temperatures can lead to more wildfires.

Less water: Rising temperatures could take a toll on rivers and groundwater as evaporation increases. The net water availability in the Southeast is expected to decline in the next several decades, particularly in the western part of the region. More people and changes in land use will make the impact more acute, and farmers could feel the effects of climate change in trying to grow crops.

Dying animals: Higher carbon dioxide could make the ocean more acidic. That could limit the growth of corals, shellfish and crustaceans. Higher temperatures and rainfall changes already have affected some amphibian species in South Carolina in the past three decades.

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