On Nov. 23 the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a quadrennial report prepared by the 13 agencies of the U.S. Global Climate Research Program, was released.
The report outlined projections of the impact of climate change in the United States.
The 1,600-page report was dire, although much of it was at the same time somewhat predictable. It noted the effects of rising sea levels on coastal cities and the shifts and challenges to farming that will accompany higher temperatures.
There were two items in the report we’d like to share. One is that while there are plenty of doubters when it comes to climate change, the broad scientific community isn’t one of them.
Neither is the U.S. military.
Climate change is already on the military’s radar as a national security threat. Some of the threats are obvious, such as the fact that the world’s largest naval base located in Norfolk, Va., is barely above sea level and will be affected by any ocean rise.
It also goes without saying that increasingly frequent and increasingly violent storms are something the finest military on the planet can’t battle – witness the obliteration of Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida at the hands of Hurricane Michael. Tyndall housed 55 F-22 stealth fighters, which cost $339 million a pop. While most were moved, not all were, so Michael came with quite a price tag.
Beyond those threats are the very real dangers posed by the impacts of weather shifts that damage or wipe out harvests. Such events can cause mass population migrations, and such migrations can lead to changes in governments or wars.
The report notes “droughts around the world in 2010 contributed to a doubling of global wheat prices in 2011 and a tripling of bread prices in Egypt. This and other factors, including national trade policy and poverty, contributed to the civil unrest that ultimately resulted in the 2011 Egyptian revolution. While the 2010 droughts were not the sole cause of the revolution, they contributed to destabilization of an already unstable region. Likewise, drought in Somalia has forced herders to sell livestock they could not provide for, reducing their incomes and leading some to join armed groups.’’
Item two hits closer to home.
The report details climate impacts on various regions of the U.S., including the Southeast. Now, the Southeast is a big place and has climates ranging from tropical to temperate here in the mountains, so not all of the Southeast predictions apply here.
But some do.
Chapter 19, the Southeast section of the report, has a section regarding fire and the Southern Appalachians, specifically the fires in 2016 that plagued Western North Carolina. “Warmer temperatures and insects have led to the loss of cold-adapted boreal communities, and flammable, fire-adapted tree species have been replaced by less flammable, fire-sensitive species – a process known as mesophication. However, intense fires, like those observed in 2016, can halt the mesophication process. High temperatures, increases in accumulated plant material on the forest floor, and a four-month seasonal drought in the fall of 2016 collectively produced the worst wildfires the region has seen in a century. Intra-annual droughts, like the one in 2016, are expected to become more frequent in the future. Thus, drought and greater fire activity are expected to continue to transform forest ecosystems in the region.’’
There’s a breakout section in Chapter 19 that will make the heart of any mountaineer sink. Bluntly put, ramps are in danger.
“… Ramps emerge in springtime and provide important nutrients after a long winter with a dearth of fresh vegetables. These plants grow in moist forest understory areas that are sensitive to temperature and soil moisture. In the Southern Appalachians, ramps are threatened by two major processes: overharvesting pressures and a changing climate that could expose these plants to higher temperatures and lower soil moisture conditions during sensitive growth periods. Although ramps are found all along the Appalachian mountain range, on Cherokee ancestral lands, they are already in their southernmost range. Climate change thus acts to increase the vulnerability of this plant to the existing stressors.’’
In short, there are threats big and small coming down the pike, threats that hold the potential to change the way we live in ways big and small. It’s a sobering report. We can only hope that we have leaders sober enough to take it seriously.