This Yahoo News series analyzes different regions around the country in terms of climate change risks that they face now and will experience in the years to come. For other entries in the series, click here.
As the negative consequences of rising global temperatures due to mankind’s relentless burning of fossil fuels become more and more apparent in communities across the United States, anxiety over finding a place to live safe from the ravages of climate change has also been on the rise.
“Millions and likely tens of millions of Americans” will move for climate reasons through the end of the century, Jesse Keenan, an associate professor of real estate in Tulane University’s School of Architecture, told Yahoo News. “People move because of school districts, affordability, job opportunities. There are a lot of drivers, and I think it’s probably best to think about this as ‘climate is now one of those drivers.’”
In late October, a report by the United Nations concluded that average global temperatures are on track to warm by 2.1 to 2.9° Celsius by the year 2100. As a result, the world can expect a dramatic rise in chaotic, extreme weather events. That increase is already happening. In the 1980s, the U.S. was hit with a weather disaster totaling $1 billion in damages once every four months, on average. Thanks to steadily rising temperatures, they now occur every three weeks, according to a draft report of the latest National Climate Assessment, and they aren’t limited to any particular geographical region.
To be sure, calculating climate risk depends on a dizzying number of factors, including luck, latitude, elevation, the upkeep of infrastructure, long-term climate patterns, the predictable behavior of the jet stream and how warming ocean waters will impact the frequency of El Niño/La Niña cycles.
“No place is immune from climate change impacts, certainly in the continental United States, and throughout the U.S. those impacts will be quite severe,” Keenan said. “They will be more severe in some places and less severe in other places. Certain places will be more moderate in terms of temperature and some places will be more extreme, but we all share the risk of the increase of extreme events.”
In this installment, we look at the two U.S. states separated from the lower 48, neither of which was included in the rankings of counties compiled by the ProPublica and the New York Times that formed the backbone of this series.
The coldest U.S. state in terms of annual mean temperature, Alaska is also America’s fastest-warming one. Since 1970, the average temperature in Alaska has risen a disconcerting 4.22°F, unleashing an array of hazards that have upended daily life.
On Monday, the northernmost city in Alaska, Utqiagvik, smashed its all-time winter high temperature record by an astonishing 6°F, when it hit 40°F, despite the fact that it lies 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
“Every new day brings with it new evidence of climate change in Alaskan communities — warmer, record-breaking temperatures have resulted in thawing permafrost, thinning sea ice, and increasing wildfires,” the Alaska Department of Commerce states on its website. “These changes have resulted in a reduction of subsistence harvests, an increase in flooding and erosion, concerns about water and food safety and major impacts to infrastructure: including damage to buildings, roads and airports.”
The upper third of Alaska is located inside the Arctic Circle, a place where temperatures this month have so far been observed at an average of 11.5°F above normal, according to data provided by the University of Maine.
Until recently, the portion of Alaska inside the Arctic Circle rarely, if ever, experienced wildfires. A 2020 study by researchers at the University of Alaska, however, found that climate change has made wildfires in the state much more common, because higher temperatures dry out vegetation more rapidly and shorten the amount of time that snow covers the ground.
The snowpack in Alaska now accumulates a week later, on average, than in the 1990s, and melts away two weeks earlier. Large fires have been starting earlier and lasting longer. Fire season in the state now lasts a month longer than it did 30 years ago.
That has resulted in a steady uptick in the number of acres burned.
“From 2000 to 2020, 2.5 times more acres burned than in the previous 20 years, and 3 of the 4 highest-acreage fire years have occurred since 2000,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture notes on its website.
Also on the rise are so-called “zombie fires” that feast not just on the trees of the boreal forest but also duff, an organic layer of dead, dried-out plants that covers much of the ground and helps insulate the permafrost. Zombie fires are fires believed to have been extinguished that keep burning throughout the harsh Alaskan winter, even under snow cover. “From 2005 to 2017, fire managers in Alaska and in Canada’s Northwest Territories reported 48 zombie, or holdover, fires that survived the long winter,” Scientific American reported in 2021.
Higher temperatures have dramatically increased evaporation rates, so that even relatively short periods with scant precipitation have the effect of transforming Alaska’s flora into the equivalent of ready-to-burn kindling. That gives zombie fires the opportunity to reemerge, making the state much more vulnerable in general to wildfire risk.
“The frequency of these big seasons has doubled from what it was in the second half of the 20th century,” Rick Thoman, a climate specialist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska’s International Arctic Research Center, told the PBS News Hour. “And there’s no reason to think that’s not going to continue.”
While sea level rise in Alaska is not, for the moment, as great a problem as in other coastal areas, due to the fact that plate tectonics is pushing land higher at a rate outpacing the rising ocean, steadily dwindling sea ice has left thousands of residents, not to mention polar bears, at risk of storms, which have become more intense due to rising temperatures.
“With climate change and a warming climate, sea ice is being impacted. A lack of sea ice is going to mean that there’s no longer any protection from the fall/winter storms that come in,” Jason Geck, a glaciologist at Alaska Pacific University, told the Associated Press in October. “Instead, we’re having major storm events that are happening more frequently, and we’re having major storm events that are causing a lot more coastal erosion.”
Winter storms are not caused by climate change, but recent studies have concluded that the disappearance of sea ice and the continued warming of the ocean will continue to supercharge storms in Alaska by the end of the century.
“Alaska can expect three times as many storms, and those storms will be more intense,” Andreas Prein, a scientist with the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research and the author of the 2021 studies on sea ice, said in a statement. “It will be a very different regime of rainfall.”
Already, several Indigenous tribes are being forced to decide whether to abandon their waterfront villages due to persistent flooding and erosion.
“Arctic residents, communities, and their infrastructure continue to be affected by permafrost thaw, coastal and river erosion, increasing wildfire, and glacier melt,” the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit states on its website. “As temperatures continue increasing, individuals and even whole communities will need to decide how and where to live.”
In October, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced that it was, for the first time ever, canceling the snow crab fishing season due to the collapse and disappearance of 90% of the crab population. In a letter to Department of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo seeking a declaration of a fishery disaster for both Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea, Alaska’s Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy laid out the climate change connection.
“Available information indicates the decline for … crab stocks resulted from natural causes linked to warming ocean temperatures,” Dunleavy wrote.
As rising global temperatures cause sea ice to melt earlier and reform later, the oceans it used to cover warm even faster. This phenomenon amplifies a feedback loop known as the albedo effect, which the Climate Resilience Toolkit describes as “the decline in cover of sea ice, glaciers, and snow cover replaces a white reflective surface with a darker, more absorptive surface of land or water. This increases the absorption of heat by the surface and thus increases the rate of Arctic warming.”
In Alaska, warmer waters are wreaking havoc on the state’s seafood industry, which generated an annual economic output of $5.6 billion in 2018. In recent years, 14 major fishery disasters there have been linked to climate change, according to a draft of the latest National Climate Assessment released in November.
On land, another feedback loop has scientists on edge. It concerns the permafrost that lies beneath the duff. When permafrost melts — and recent studies have found a growing number of places in Alaska where that is now happening — it releases methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term. If the Arctic transforms into a net emitter of greenhouse gases, that could cause global temperatures to rise even further, which would result in more permafrost melt.
Alaska residents have long known that climate change had the potential to negatively impact their way of life. Back in 2007, then-Gov. Sarah Palin signed an administrative order establishing the first Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet, which went on to release a 2010 report that found that rising temperatures had “already begun to render ground and building foundations unstable, disrupt transportation routes, and trigger phenomena placing coastal communities in imminent danger from flooding and erosion.”
State agencies later produced documents such as the Alaska Department of Fish & Game Climate Change Strategy, and in 2017, the state’s Gov. Bill Walker established a task force to propose a climate change adaptation plan “that will safeguard Alaska now and for future generations.”
After his inauguration in 2019, Gov. Dunleavy quietly revoked Walker’s order and disbanded the climate response team.
In 2021, Hawaii became the first U.S. state to pass a resolution to declare a climate emergency. While State Senate Concurrent Resolution 44 is symbolic and nonbinding, it acknowledged “an existential climate emergency threatens humanity and the natural world, declares a climate emergency, and requests statewide collaboration toward an immediate just transition and emergency mobilization effort to restore a safe climate.”
Like island nations that climate change threatens to wipe off the map, the threats facing the seven Hawaiian islands where people live start with sea level rise. Given that nearly half of the state’s land area is within 5 miles of the ocean, exacerbated by the fact that much of the land there is sinking, rising seas should factor highly in any decision about selecting a place to live to be safe from global warming.
“The sea level around Hilo Bay [on the Big Island] has risen by 10 inches in 1950, and now, it’s rising faster, at about 1 inch every 4 years,” the state says on its climate change portal. “This increases the frequency and reach of coastal floods, which affect our communities. 2017 was a record flood year for Honolulu (37 flood days, when historically, the average has been around 4 days). These floods were fully attributed to climate change/sea level rise. Today, Hawai’i has 66,000 people regularly at risk from coastal flooding. In Kailua for example, 50% of the population is locked in below expected flood zones.”
A 2018 study by researchers at the University of Hawaii found that 34% of the state’s shorelines are already vulnerable to waves and storms made more intense by climate change. To date, coastal erosion has eaten away 13 miles of beaches in the state, and has left 70% of the existing beaches in a precarious state, according to Hawaii’s climate change portal.
“Unless we take action today, we will lose all the beauty, many of our beaches throughout not only this state, throughout the world,” Maui Mayor Mike Victorino told ABC News last year.
For any tourist who has visited Waikiki Beach more than once over several years, the reality of sea level rise is impossible to miss. Water levels now regularly lap against concrete barriers that shield the iconic strip of beachfront hotels, and the uninterrupted expanse of sand that made the beach famous exists only in memory. By 2100, projections are that Hawaii will see another 1 to 4 feet of sea level rise, possibly as much as 8 feet, potentially spelling the end of the Waikiki coastline as we know it.
But it’s not just beaches that are at risk. Coastal flooding in the state has risen sharply since the 1960s. By 2100, should sea levels rise by 3.2 feet, a 2017 report by the Hawaii Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission projected that 25,800 acres of land will become unusable and “6,500 structures located near the shoreline would be compromised or lost.”
The primary cause of global sea level rise in Hawaii is the warmer temperatures melting polar ice caps and glaciers. While temperatures are rising fastest in the Arctic, they have also gone up in Honolulu by 2.6°F since 1950, with the bulk of this warming in the past decade, according to data from NOAA. In the years to come, if greenhouse gas emissions are not slashed, Hawaii will become much warmer still. “Average temperatures could increase by as much as 5-7.5° F by the end of the century,” state officials warn.
The world’s oceans have absorbed 90% of the warming in recent decades caused by the burning of fossil fuels, according to NASA. In Hawaii, as elsewhere, higher ocean temperatures threaten another local treasure: coral reefs. The Environmental Protection Agency has predicted that if warming continues at its current pace, 40% of Hawaii’s coral reefs could be lost by the end of this century.
Climate change is also changing rainfall patterns in the state.
“Hawai‘i is getting drier. Rainfall has declined significantly over the past 30 years, with widely varying rainfall patterns on each island,” the state says on its climate change portal. “This means some areas are flooding and others are too dry. Since 2008, overall, the islands have been drier, and when it does finally rain, it rains a lot.”
In April 2018, epic rainfall hit the island of Kauai. An all-time-U.S.-record 50 inches of rain fell in a 24-hour period, damaging or destroying 532 homes, wrecking roads and racking up damages of almost $180 million.
Climate scientists noted the Clausius-Clapeyron effect, which established that for every degree Celsius of temperature rise, 7% more moisture is added to the atmosphere. In short, when conditions are right, rain is abundant, including in the place that already receives the most annual rainfall on Earth.
Such overwhelming downpours will become an increasingly common feature of life on Hawaii going forward, research shows, forcing officials to prepare.
“We need to get used to climate events like this,” Honolulu’s mayor, Rick Blangiardi, told the Associated Press. “A tremendous concentration of rain in a small amount of time in focused areas is going to result in flooding anywhere. If we have situations like that, then we need to really approach and attack.”
On the bright side, a 2022 study by researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and published in the journal Global Environmental Change found that, thanks to rising temperatures, Hawaii can expect about 5% more days with a rainbow in the next 80 years.
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