Now that we’ve had a little time to reflect on our journey this past year, I’d like to share our observations about climate change impacts on the East Coast. I’ve broken this post into three parts: the bad news, the good news, and what you can do about it. Let’s rip off that band aid and talk first about the bad news: the immense challenges that face our coasts in coming decades.
Throughout our journey, touching thirteen states over three thousand miles, we spoke with non-profits, environmental educators, land managers, and fisherman about how climate change was impacting their local environments and communities. Ready or not, the following four categories of impacts are already occurring and were fresh on the minds of those we spoke with.
Our buildings, roads, pipes, and bridges, particularly on the East Coast where European settlements date back several hundred years, are already deteriorating due to age and lack of funding. When the threats of rising seas and more severe storms are factored in, the picture begins to look dire.
During our stop at the Hudson Riverkeeper last September we learned how New York City’s complicated system to deliver unfiltered water to the city is threatened by increasingly intense rainfall. More frequent cloudbursts mean that small, clear streams are turned into raging muddy rivers more often, forcing the city to consider spending billions to filter drinking water.
We also drove on two different highways that had been submerged in recent storms, one leading to Tybee Island, Georgia, and the other to the Western portion of the Florida Keys. Both of these were rendered impassable at one point during storm surges or king tides in the past two years, cutting island residents off from the main land. If people are going to continue to inhabit these places, these roads will need to be raised several feet to accommodate projected sea level rise in the coming century.
Like our infrastructure, fisheries and ocean ecosystems were already threatened before ocean warming and acidification became and issue. Fish populations worldwide are being harvested faster than they can reproduce while at the same time warmer and more acid oceans are causing some species to die out or relocate. This can lead to economic turmoil for small fishing communities like Tangier Island, VA. The blue crab gathered by the watermen of Tangier have been declining for several decades. Now ocean acidification is changing the ecosystem in Chesapeake Bay and further destabilizing the population, leaving this small community less and less economically viable.
We also observed how isolated communities like Tangier can be less resilient to impacts because their economies are often based on a single natural resource. If that resource is disappearing there may not be an alternative economic engine, making it unaffordable to live in such a remote location.
Instances of severe weather, including tornados and hurricanes, are projected to increase under climate change. Living on a boat gave us a visceral experience of large storms like nothing we had ever experienced on land. On a boat you not only feel the wind and rain pounding above you but also the floor beneath your feet lurching with every wave, creating a barrage of motion and sound from all sides. We experienced more than 100 mph winds during a triplet of storms on Lake Michigan, endured a miserable night being tossed around on the Hudson while Hurricane Joaquin collided with a nor’easter, and came within striking distance of two tornados during our time in Florida.
These storms rank as some of the most terrifying experiences of my life. With each sleepless night I moved beyond a cognitive knowledge of the projected increase in severe weather to an emotional and fearful understanding of what it actually feels like to experience severe storms more often. We were fortunate to avoid any real damage from these storms, though we caught glimpses of the damage to lives and property that resulted. The process of rebuilding is messy and expensive, and shows no signs of streamlining despite projections of more frequent severe weather to come.
Assisted Ecosystem Transformation
As I mentioned in my post about coral reef recovery efforts in the Keys, coral reefs are rapidly declining due to ocean warming and other factors, in addition to being difficult to access and not well understood scientifically. The likelihood that Caribbean reefs will look the way they do today in 50 years is minute at best. The challenge for residents, fisherman, scientists, and environmentalists is to decide which parts of this complex ecosystem should receive the finite resources available for conservation. To answer this question in a pragmatic way, one must to forfeit the goal of conservation as it has been understood in recent decades.
The concept of restoring systems, or helping them return to a state defined by how they functioned before human intervention, has been the basic goal within the environmental movement since it’s beginnings. This restoration paradigm is established on the assumption that returning to such a state is possible. However, now that we have entered the Anthropocene and we are the stewards of our global climate, the atmosphere and oceans are changing too rapidly and unpredictably for the goal of restoration to be practical. Instead, scientists and environmentalists must first assume that systems are constantly in transition, and then move ahead creating goals for how an altered system can be best sustained. A key part of this process is called an assisted migration, and it requires stakeholders to prioritize their resources by saving species that are deemed both important and possible to save.
The question of what is worth saving is, as you might imagine, extremely controversial and complicated to answer. Those trying to protect coral reefs in the Caribbean are still learning how their complex system functions while scrambling to keep it viable, making assisted migration even more complicated. On a larger scale, Americans interested in protecting the environment and its valuable ecosystem services are forced to engage in a sort of environmental triage at the same moment as our infrastructure and economy face mounting threats from climate change impacts.
In addition to these four, there was another common theme in responses to our questions about climate change impacts. We noticed that any ruminations on climate change were always followed up by reports of other threats to local areas. For example, when a person would list environmental challenges on the East Coast, sea level rise was just one item on a list including chemical pollution, natural erosion of sand beaches, and invasive species.
In short, systems and resources we as Americans have decided to manage are both very complex and often face a slew of other threats in addition to impending climate change impacts. Things can seem bleak, but there are positive developments worth celebrating, so check out part 2 of this series!