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June 6, 2014

The climate and our health: Coastal North Carolina

Climate change could dramatically affect coastal North Carolina and its population.

Possibly one of the most popular climate change-related topics of conversation lately is sea level rise. The science shows that it is happening, and according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that rise appears to be accelerating since 1900. In fact, records indicate that the rate of rise is 0.04 to 0.1 inches per year, and still might be increasing.

Dr. Gary Lackmann, meteorologist and climate researcher at North Carolina State University, points out “The amount of sea-level rise around the globe is not uniform. In fact, there is accelerated rise along the US East Coast, due to changes in offshore ocean currents.”

Projections are that coastal storms and hurricanes will increase in strength as the global temperature rises. The effect of those storms on the shore such as beach erosion “could determine what the overall impact of sea-level rise really is,” according to Dr. Lackmann.

Obviously, the eastern side of North Carolina boasting over 300 miles of beaches is vulnerable to a rise in sea level, but what else could affect our coastal communities? Dr. Lackmann answers this way:

The parts of NC which could be most affected by climate change are those which are prone to flooding, and coastal areas that would be most likely to suffer the effects of sea level rise. However, other impacts could include susceptibility to drought and heat waves, but there is less confidence in these aspects. Bear in mind that for some changes, we are talking decades into the future.

Heat waves are also listed as a concern by the National Climate Assessment and the Research Triangle Environmental Health Collaborative (RTEHC). An increasing number of days above 95 degrees each year could have a negative impact on coastal populations with more limited availability of community medical centers according to the RTEHC’s report on “Public Health and Climate Change.”

A reduction in the supply of freshwater is also possible at the coast and across the state as projections show that there may be fewer light rain events overall and more heavy precipitation events. The combination could lead to more droughts, and when it does rain, the rain could come so fast and heavy that it runs off instead of sinking into the ground, causing flash flooding and doing little to help with drought conditions.

If you combine drought with rising sea level at the coast, then there could be an additional strain on freshwater supplies as salt water moves farther into areas not used to salinity. The wetlands would be affected and their ecosystems might change dramatically.

All of these variables have public health implications. Consider heat stroke from higher temperatures, a lack of freshwater for consumption and agricultural uses, changing marine ecosystems affecting the fishing industry, public works such as roadways and utilities being stressed under rising sea level, etc. Those people responsible for planning for communities have a great deal to think about with respect to the current climate change projections.

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