Rising sea level and storm surge.
All these weather conditions will intensify across the state in coming years, according to the government report “Climate Ready North Carolina: Building a Resilient Future.” Of these five conditions associated with climate change, all but one — sea level rise — will hit home here in the Piedmont.
Some are already evident.
Just this spring, the Triad has been hit repeatedly by violent thunderstorms that dump huge amounts of rain in a short time, like the storm last Sunday that flooded Latham Park. In other recent summers, the area has struggled with drought. Greensboro recorded two days above 90 degrees this spring before summer officially started.
Even so, the terms “climate change” and “global warming” have become so politically charged that they often shut down discussion with those who dispute the causes, or even the existence, of widespread changes in the weather.
While the climate-change debate rages on in national and state political houses, some on the front lines are quietly going about the business of dealing with extreme weather events happening now — and planning for worse events in the future.
Local emergency-management officials are finished talking about whether climate change is happening.
“I’m not a scientist by any means, nor do I pretend to play one on TV,” said Zach Smith, the emergency management coordinator for planning in Guilford County. “I don’t get into what caused it or why. But looking at recent history and scientific predictions, it’s clear that the effects of weather are becoming more extreme.
“We are the end users of these effects. There is no doubt in my mind that this is going on.”
Agriculture, tourism, public health, transportation and natural resources will face enormous challenges as extreme weather events increase, climate experts say.
But the federal government has been slow to act, and the state, after making a big push to explore the effects of climate change and create an adaptation plan, has all but abandoned the issue.
“The people are ahead of the politicians on this,” said Tom Perriello, a former Virginia congressman and the current president and chief executive officer of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, an educational institute that advocates for progressive causes. He spoke at a recent “I Will Act on Climate” bus tour.
“As we’ve made stops in North Carolina, we’ve talked to sportsmen, boaters, farmers, fishermen,” Perriello said.
“They all know it’s a problem.”
Heat, drought, storms
The report by the N.C. Interagency Leadership Team, a group of 11 state and federal agencies, details the exceptional number of extreme-weather events in the state since 2006:
•Statewide records were set for the all-time warmest month (August 2007), the warmest summer (2010), and second-warmest summer (2011).
•The state suffered its worst drought in more than 100 years in 2007. Greensboro instituted mandatory water restrictions and started buying water from neighboring municipalities as ponds dried up and reservoir levels fell.
•The state experienced its worst tornado outbreak in the modern record in April 2011. One of the most severe outbreaks started in Alamance County on April 16, spinning off 30 tornadoes that killed 24 people, injured 400 and damaged or destroyed 900 home and businesses.
•North Carolina experienced eight tropical cyclones (hurricanes, tropical storms or tropical depressions) during that time.
•The state also recorded at least one extreme-precipitation event at half of its weather stations. Extreme precipitation is defined as 3 inches or more of rainfall within a 24-hour period.
•Greensboro had double the normal amount of rainfall in June, and the amount is above normal so far in July. Heavy downpours have caused flooding in many areas of the city. On July 10, Guilford County Emergency Services received about 10 reports of flooding substantial enough that people needed to be rescued from a car or residence, Smith said. Sunday’s storm had a nearly identical effect on Latham Park.
“There were several water rescues that had to be made, and there were 18 different accounts of flooded streets,” Smith said.
North Carolina faces unique challenges when it comes to weather prediction and weather events, according to Ryan Boyles, state climatologist. Even the best climate models don’t do a good job of predicting weather trends for North Carolina, which has easily the most complex climate in the eastern United States, Boyles said.
The state experiences almost every kind of severe weather pattern in existence.
“We have such extremes anyway, it’s difficult to point to any one extreme and say, ‘We’ve never seen that before.’ We’ve seen everything,” Boyles said. “But we can talk about extreme events and how the frequency of those events may be changing.”
People who want to argue on either side of the issue in North Carolina can find data to support them, Boyles said, but the entire body of data, taken as a whole, leads to one conclusion.
“There’s nothing we’ve looked at that suggests it will get milder,” Boyles said. “There’s no definitive evidence that it will get worse, but everything is pointing in that direction so far.”
Effect on the state
Most discussions about climate change in North Carolina tend to revolve around sea level rise, which is statistically significant, and the threat to the coastline. But that’s just one piece of the picture.
“This is not just a coastal issue,” said Jane Preyer, the director of the Southeast Office of the Environmental Defense Fund, a national nonprofit organization that works to preserve natural systems and find solutions to environmental problems. “This is something that will be felt across our state.”
Increasing cycles of drought, heavy rainfall and extreme heat could have a dramatic effect on agriculture. Climate zones for planting issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2012 reclassified a third of the state from Zone 7 to the warmer Zone 8, while parts of the western mountains went from a Zone 6 to Zone 7, reflecting the steady rise in temperatures. As that trend continues, some existing crops won’t be able to withstand higher temperatures.
The Christmas tree industry is particularly vulnerable to temperature rise. Some predictions have it disappearing from the state altogether by 2030, Preyer said.
“I think it will still be there,” climatologist Boyles said, “but it may be limited compared to the productivity we have now. It will retreat to higher elevations.”
High temperatures, drought and flooding will make trees and crops more vulnerable to insects and disease. Plant and animal habitats will change as temperatures rise and rainfall patterns change.
Flooding from periods of intense rainfall also takes a toll on water, sewer and transportation systems with an increase in such problems as sinkholes, road collapses, sewer overflows and pipe breaks.
And the state’s infrastructure isn’t in great shape to being with. In a June report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the state’s bridges, drinking water, stormwater and wastewater systems got a C grade. Dams and airports got a D.
Heavy rainfall puts a strain on the stormwater runoff system, sending more sediment and pollution into the water supply. Greensboro is already facing stricter standards for stormwater runoff because of water-quality issues downstream in Jordan Lake.
Increasing temperatures will produce higher concentrations of ground-level ozone, already a problem in the Triad. An April air-quality report by the American Lung Association ranked the Greensboro-High Point-Winston-Salem metro area as the 42nd most polluted in the nation. The area got an F for air quality, primarily because of the number of Code Orange days. Code Orange means ozone levels have reached unhealthy levels for sensitive groups.
The ozone season is likely to be longer, with more high-ozone days. That, in turn, will lead to an increase in respiratory and heat-related illnesses. Hit hardest will be children and the elderly, people with chronic illness, and people who work outdoors.
Looking for solutions
The buzzword now for dealing with climate change is resiliency.
“There are real practical things that can be done,” Boyles said. “Making ourselves resilient to hazards we already know we have can help us be much better prepared.”
Transportation, agriculture and resource management are all areas that can benefit from factoring climate science into their decision-making, Boyles said.
But one of the biggest roadblocks to action is the sensitivity associated with the terms “global warming” and “climate change.”
“Recurrent flooding,” “climate disruption” and even “the weirding of the weather” are a few of the euphemisms created to talk about climate change by organizations that have no choice but to deal with the effects.
Call it whatever you have to in order to get something done, said Linda Rimer, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s liaison to the Carolinas.
Rimer was one of the speakers at a June workshop called “Extreme Weather Preparedness at the Regional Level” hosted by the Guilford County Emergency Management Department and organized by the group Piedmont Together.
As national efforts have been slow in coming and state efforts have stalled, regional groups like Piedmont Together are starting to take the lead.
“I am so proud of them,” Rimer said. “To have a noncoastal group working on extreme weather and drought is pretty spectacular.”
Piedmont Together is a consortium of supporting municipalities, including Greensboro, High Point, Burlington and Winston-Salem; agencies and organizations, including Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation, Piedmont Triad Council of Governments, Piedmont Triad Partnership; and the Metropolitan Planning Organizations for Burlington-Graham, Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem. Other members include organizations as diverse as the YMCA and the Center for New North Carolinians.
With a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the consortium is developing a Sustainable Communities Regional Plan that includes climate adaptation. Boyles said he hopes the group will be “a shining beacon for the rest of the state.”
“The thing I’m most impressed with is that it’s got city and regional planners working with emergency managers,” Boyles said. “Having those two groups working together makes so much sense.”
Three key concerns identified so far by the group are public health, agriculture and impacts on ecology and wildlife.
“First and foremost is public safety,” said Kyle Laird, who works for PART and is a co-chairman of the climate adaptation work group. “That is the strongest argument for being wary of climate variability and getting prepared for it.
“The second thing is your economy,” Laird said. “If you’re not ready, particularly on the agricultural side of things, the economy could be hit hard.”
While in the short term, farmers may benefit from a longer growing season, in the long term, crops will be strained by high heat and increasing cycles of drought, said Cy Stober, the water-resources manager for Piedmont Triad Regional Council and a co-chairman of the climate adaptation group.
“I think farmers are already aware of this,” Laird said. “They’re very mindful of ways it’s affecting what they grow and when they plant. That’s a straight line to climate change.”
Conserving water resources is a major concern, not just to farmers but to municipalities — for their existing population and for attracting new residents and industry.
“We need to make sure we utilize land and water resources efficiently,” Stober said. “We’re also looking at creating what we call green infrastructure.”
That includes protecting existing fields and ecosystems, as well as creating more greenways and tree canopy within the city to provide a cooling effect. It also includes new technology like bioretention cells and green roofs.
“Infrastructure is something we need to talk about,” Stober said. “We need to know that we’re able to deal with extreme events we’re having now, that our bridges and roads are not going to be falling apart. And we have to make sure our water and sewer systems can handle climate change and also growth.”
One of the keys to planning is recognizing that you aren’t going to be able to predict the future by looking at the past, said Doug Rader, the chief ocean scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund. Most regulatory plans are based on historical data, Rader said.
“We can no longer assume the patterns of the past will hold in the future, and it will cost us dearly if we continue to do so,” he said.
Guilford County Emergency Management is working with Piedmont Together to make sure it is ahead of the curve in dealing with more severe weather.
The first step is identifying the hazard and determining what type of risk it presents and who will be at risk, said Zach Smith, the county’s emergency management planning coordinator.
“The two biggest takeaways for us were the increase in high-heat days, as well as the amount of rainfall that amounts to flooding,” Smith said. “Is there infrastructure that needs to be improved? Do we need to change the building codes in areas prone to flooding recently?”
The other task is getting the message out to help people prepare.
“Education is probably at the forefront of all of this,” Smith said. “We all have to be educated about what’s happening, what’s likely to happen, and make a good case for why there need to be changes.”
Like almost everyone else actively working on the issue, Smith tries to steer clear of the larger discussion about climate change and global warming — and to avoid the actual terms.
“Both of those terms have become so sensitive,” he said. “That’s the reason we talk about extreme weather.”
Jenny Edwards, the program manager for Rockingham County with the Dan River Basin Association, takes the same approach.
“What we know is that the weather is becoming more severe and more unpredictable,” Edwards said. “Is it climate change? Global warming? Who knows?”
And in a sense, she said, who cares?
“What we do know is that we should be prepared for these events so we can be safe and maintain our quality of life,” Edwards said.
Of particular concern in Rockingham County is the effect on the Dan River, arguably the county’s most valuable natural resource. The river is the chief source of water for MillerCoors, which adds $2 million annually to the local economy.
Duke Energy’s Belews Creek power plant also relies on water from the Dan River. During the 2007 drought, Edwards said, the company considered rolling blackouts to cope with the low water levels in Belews Creek. As a result of that drought, the company created a new access point to draw water from the Dan.
The river is also the centerpiece of the only industry in Rockingham County that is actually growing, Edwards said: tourism.
At Duke Energy’s Dan River plant outside Eden, there are two coal ash ponds roughly 100 feet from the river, Edwards said. Increasingly heavy rainfall could cause coal ash ponds to leak, burst or overflow, sending a toxic soup into the Dan River, Edwards said.
The collapse of a coal ash pond at the Kingston Fossil power plant in Tennessee in 2008 buried as many as 400 acres of land, and 15 homes, in up to 6 feet of sludge. Unusually heavy rain was said to be one of the causes.
There are also 2,000 Depression-era farm ponds in Rockingham County that could send sediment and pollutants into the Dan when rainfall is extreme.
“We’re looking at ways now to work with landowners to make sure dams and spillways are in good shape, and trying to figure out ways to get the resources to make repairs,” Edwards said.
The Dan River Basin Association, like many nonprofit groups and municipalities, focuses on “no regrets” solutions — actions that have positive effects on water and air quality, improve natural resources and spur economic development. Things you would want to achieve regardless of climate change. That’s the approach Boyles recommends.
“It’s so easy to think about putting it off,” he said. “It seems remote to most people. It’s something we can’t wrap our heads around, and we can’t completely predict. But 50 years out, when we are dealing with these effects, we’ll look back and say: ‘We saw all the signs, and I wish we’d done something about it.’ ”