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May 29, 2014

The climate and our health: North Carolina’s urban population

This is an overview of how climate change could affect the city-dwellers in North Carolina in the future.

Raleigh is a great place to be! It regularly tops the annual lists of best places to live and raise a family. The Triangle is one of the fastest growing urban areas in the country and other urban areas in North Carolina are keeping pace. As the years advance and the climate changes, our cities will have some important effects to address.

I asked North Carolina State University professor and climate researcher Dr. Gary Lackmann for his thoughts on how climate change might affect our state based on some of the research he and his team have done recently. He explained it this way:

Climate change is such a global issue; it is difficult to scale down to state-level details with much confidence. For longer-term changes over larger areas, there is more confidence. Shorter term climate fluctuations are partly due to natural variability and partly due to anthropogenic changes. At what point the anthropogenic signal emerges strongly from the natural variability is also difficult to say with certainty, although some of the signals are already evident (e.g., Arctic warming, sea-level rise).

There are common changes that would be likely to affect very large areas, such as the tendency for more frequent heavy precipitation, and reduced frequency of lighter precipitation. This has obvious implications for flooding and agriculture.

Anyone who lives near Crabtree Creek in Raleigh can tell you that heavy precipitation events can have disastrous results from the localized flooding they cause. In urban areas with more concrete and pavement than permeable ground, the water is forced to runoff quickly overwhelming the storm drains and creeks, forcing water to cover roadways, parking lots, and even yards.

This topic brings us back to the Research Triangle Environmental Health Collaborative’s report mentioned in last week’s post. According to it, North Carolina’s urban areas will need to consider post-disaster recovery and risk reduction as well as asthma when making plans regarding climate change.

The key reason behind the concern about recovery and risk reduction is something that long-time Raleigh residents should be able to understand. After a case of extreme weather such as hurricanes and localized flooding, people tend to want to get back to the way things were before the event as quickly as possible. Expediency often trumps lessons learned, which can lead to a lack of improvements in building and construction codes. The structures and places negatively impacted by an event could just as easily be affected again in the future.

Asthma is a concern because, according to the same report, “deteriorating air quality as a result of climate change is expected to have significant” impact on the poor and children. As urban populations grow, an increase in ground level ozone is expected, which in turn can trigger asthma.

Knowing that all computer models that are used to look into the future include some basic assumptions, I asked Dr. Lackmann to detail these as well:

First, it is very difficult to anticipate human greenhouse gas emissions in the future, because it depends on factors such as the pace of alternative energy development, politics, and population growth. Because of these additional uncertainties, it is better to refer to a forecast of a future climate as a “projection” rather than a “prediction”. There are uncertainties in the climate models as well, including information about what different future emissions will be. Typically, a range of emissions scenarios is tested. Also, it is important to recognize that climate models are designed to clarify the effects of greenhouse gas increases on the climate, they are *not* generally designed to make precise climate forecasts. For example, they don't include guesses for future volcanic eruptions, or other factors that could affect climate. In this sense, they should not be evaluated in the same way as a weather forecast would be evaluated. However, they do an excellent job of providing information about large-scale changes that would result from an increase in greenhouse gases.

I offer many thanks to Dr. Lackmann for his expert contribution to this series. Next week, I’ll cover the potential effects of climate change on our coastal region.

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