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Climate Change Impacts Northeast

Updated: Mar 29, 2020

Ellicott City, Maryland

On the afternoon of May 27, 2018, after receiving over 8 inches of rain in the span of two hours, historic Main Street in Ellicott City, Maryland flooded again days before the new flood emergency alert system was to become operational.

A recently published national assessment on climate change takes a look at impacts for regions across the country. The summary below shows the Northeast will face several challenges in both urban and rural areas.

The Northeast

The Northeast region is characterized by four distinct seasons and a diverse landscape that is central to the region’s cultural identity, quality of life, and economic success. It is both the most heavily forested and most densely populated region in the country. Residents have ready access to beaches, forests, and other natural areas and use them heavily for recreation. Colorful autumn foliage, winter recreation, and summer vacations in the mountains or at the beach are all important parts of the Northeast’s cultural identity, and this tourism contributes billions of dollars to the regional economy.

The seasonal climate, natural systems, and accessibility of certain types of recreation are threatened by declining snow and ice, rising sea levels, and rising temperatures. By 2035, and under both lower and higher scenarios (RCP4.5 and RCP8.5), the Northeast is projected to be more than 3.6°F (2°C) warmer on average than during the preindustrial era. This would be the largest increase in the contiguous United States and would occur as much as two decades before global average temperatures reach a similar milestone.

The region’s oceans and coasts support a rich maritime heritage and provide an iconic landscape, as well as economic and ecological services. Highly productive marshes, fisheries, ecosystems, and coastal infrastructure are sensitive to changing environmental conditions, including shifts in temperature, ocean acidification, sea level, storm surge, flooding, and erosion.

Many of these changes are already affecting coastal and marine ecosystems, posing increasing risks to people, traditions, infrastructure, and economies. These risks are exacerbated by increasing demands on these ecosystems to support human use and development. The Northeast has experienced some of the highest rates of sea level rise and ocean warming in the United States, and these exceptional increases relative to other regions are projected to continue through the end of the century.

The Northeast is quite varied geographically, with a wide spectrum of communities including densely populated cities and metropolitan regions and relatively remote hamlets and villages. Rural and urban areas have distinct vulnerabilities, impacts, and adaptation responses to climate change. The urbanized parts of the Northeast are dependent on the neighboring rural areas’ natural and recreational services, while the rural communities are dependent on the economic vitality and wealth-generating capacity of the region’s major cities.

Rural and urban communities together are under increasing threat of climate change and the resulting impacts, and adaptation strategies reveal their interdependence and opportunities for successful climate resilience. Rural–urban linkages in the region could also be altered by climate change impacts.

Population Density

A satellite mosaic overlaid with primary roads and population density highlights the diverse characteristics of the region in terms of settlement patterns, interconnections among population centers of varying sizes, and variability in relief across the ocean shelf. Sources: U.S. Department of Transportation, U.S. Geological Survey, and ERT, Inc.

In rural areas, community identity is often built around the prominence of small, multigenerational, owner-operated businesses and the natural resources of the local area. Climate variability can affect human migration patterns and may change flows into or out of the Northeast as well as between rural and urban locations.

Published research in this area, however, is limited. The Northeast has long been losing residents to other regions of the country. Droughts and flooding can adversely affect ecosystem function, farm economic viability, and land use. Although future projections of major floods remain ambiguous, more intense precipitation events have increased the risk of some types of inland floods, particularly in valleys, where people, infrastructure, and agriculture tend to be concentrated. With little redundancy in their infrastructure and, therefore, limited economic resilience, many rural communities have limited ability to cope with climate-related changes.

Residents in urban areas face multiple climate hazards, including temperature extremes, episodes of poor air quality, recurrent waterfront and coastal flooding, and intense precipitation events that can lead to increased flooding on urban streams. These physical changes may lead to large numbers of evacuated and displaced populations and damaged infrastructure; sustaining communities may require significant investment and planning to provide emergency response efforts, a long-term commitment to rebuilding and adaptation, and support for relocation.

Underrepresented communities, such as the poor, elderly, language-isolated, and recent immigrants, are more vulnerable due to their limited ability to prepare for and cope with extreme weather and climate events. Service infrastructure in the Northeast is at increasing risk of disruption, resulting in lower quality of life, economic declines, and enhanced social inequality. Interdependencies across critical infrastructure sectors such as water, energy, transportation, and telecommunication (and related climate security issues) can lead to cascading failures during extreme weather and climate-related disruptions.

The region’s high density of built environment sites and facilities, large number of historic structures, and older housing and infrastructure compared to other regions suggest that urban centers in the Northeast are particularly vulnerable to climate shifts and extreme weather events. For example, because much of the historical development of industry and commerce in New England occurred along rivers, canals, coasts, and other bodies of water, these areas often have a higher density of contaminated sites, waste management facilities, and petroleum storage facilities that are potentially vulnerable to flooding.

As a result, increases in flood frequency or severity could increase the spread of contaminants into soils and waterways, resulting in increased risks to the health of nearby ecosystems, animals, and people—a set of phenomena well documented following Superstorm Sandy.

The changing climate of the Northeast threatens the health and well-being of residents through environmental changes that lead to health-related impacts and costs, including additional deaths, emergency room visits and hospitalizations, higher risk of infectious diseases, lower quality of life, and increased costs associated with healthcare utilization.

Health impacts of climate change vary across people and communities of the Northeast and depend on social, socioeconomic, demographic, and societal factors; community adaptation efforts; and underlying individual vulnerability.

Maintaining functioning, sustainable communities in the face of climate change requires effective adaptation strategies that anticipate and buffer impacts, while also enabling communities to capitalize upon new opportunities. Many northeastern cities already have or are rapidly developing short-term and long-term plans to mitigate climate effects and to plan for efficient investments in sustainable development and long-term adaptation strategies.

Although timely adaptation to climate-related impacts would help reduce threats to people’s health, safety, economic well-being, and ways of life, changes to those societal elements will not be avoided completely.

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