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January 1, 2019

The Southeast includes vast expanses of coastal and inland low-lying areas, the southern portion of the Appalachian Mountains, numerous high-growth metropolitan areas, and large rural expanses. These beaches and bayous, fields and forests, and cities and small towns are all at risk from a changing climate. While some climate change impacts, such as sea level rise and extreme downpours, are being acutely felt now, others, like increasing exposure to dangerous high temperatures, humidity, and new local diseases, are expected to become more significant in the coming decades. While all regional residents and communities are potentially at risk for some impacts, some communities or populations are at greater risk due to their locations, services available to them, and economic situations.

Observed warming since the mid-20th century has been uneven in the Southeast region, with average daily minimum temperatures increasing three times faster than average daily maximum temperatures. The number of extreme rainfall events is increasing. Climate model simulations of future conditions project increases in both temperature and extreme precipitation.

Trends towards a more urbanized and denser Southeast are expected to continue, creating new climate vulnerabilities. Cities across the Southeast are experiencing more and longer summer heat waves. Vector-borne diseases pose a greater risk in cities than in rural areas because of higher population densities and other human factors, and the major urban centers in the Southeast are already impacted by poor air quality during warmer months. Increasing precipitation and extreme weather events will likely impact roads, freight rail, and passenger rail, which will likely have cascading effects across the region. Infrastructure related to drinking water and wastewater treatment also has the potential to be compromised by climate-related events. Increases in extreme rainfall events and high tide coastal floods due to future climate change will impact the quality of life of permanent residents as well as tourists visiting the low-lying and coastal regions of the Southeast. Sea level rise is contributing to increased coastal flooding in the Southeast, and high tide flooding already poses daily risks to businesses, neighborhoods, infrastructure, transportation, and ecosystems in the region. There have been numerous instances of intense rainfall events that have had devastating impacts on inland communities in recent years.

The ecological resources that people depend on for livelihoods, protection, and well-being are increasingly at risk from the impacts of climate change. Sea level rise will result in the rapid conversion of coastal, terrestrial, and freshwater ecosystems to tidal saline habitats. Reductions in the frequency and intensity of cold winter temperature extremes are already allowing tropical and subtropical species to move northward and replace more temperate species. Warmer winter temperatures are also expected to facilitate the northward movement of problematic invasive species, which could transform natural systems north of their current distribution. In the future, rising temperatures and increases in the duration and intensity of drought are expected to increase wildfire occurrence and also reduce the effectiveness of prescribed fire practices.

Many in rural communities are maintaining connections to traditional livelihoods and relying on natural resources that are inherently vulnerable to climate changes. Climate trends and possible climate futures show patterns that are already impacting—and are projected to further impact—rural sectors, from agriculture and forestry to human health and labor productivity. Future temperature increases are projected to pose challenges to human health. Increases in temperatures, water stress, freeze-free days, drought, and wildfire risks, together with changing conditions for invasive species and the movement of diseases, create a number of potential risks for existing agricultural systems. Rural communities tend to be more vulnerable to these changes due to factors such as demography, occupations, earnings, literacy, and poverty incidence. In fact, a recent economic study using a higher scenario (RCP8.5) suggests that the southern and midwestern populations are likely to suffer the largest losses from future climate changes in the United States. Climate change tends to compound existing vulnerabilities and exacerbate existing inequities. Already poor regions, including those found in the Southeast, are expected to continue incurring greater losses than elsewhere in the United States.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2018
Title Southeast
DOI 10.7930/NCA4.2018.CH19
Authors Lynne Carter, Adam J. Terando, Kirstin Dow, Kevin Hiers, Kenneth E. Kunkel, Aranzazu R. Lascurain, Doug Marcy, Michael J. Osland, Paul Schramm
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Other Government Series
Index ID 70201875
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Office of Science Quality and Integrity