The Environmental and Energy Study Institute held a briefing examining the current and projected impacts of climate change in the Southeast, and efforts to manage these risks. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the Southeast region has experienced more billion-dollar natural disasters than any other region in the United States, primarily from hurricanes, but also from tornadoes and winter storms. Climate change will increase the frequency and strength of such extreme weather events. Coastal areas in the Gulf already grapple with hurricane damages that cost an average $14 billion a year, and conservative estimates project that these costs could rise to $23 billion by 2030, with 50 percent of this increase attributable to climate change. Rising sea levels also have the potential to create widespread damage. The Third National Climate Assessment (NCA) projects between 1 to 4 feet of sea level rise by 2100, and many of the region’s major cities are in low-lying, coastal areas, as are critical highways, trade ports, and military installations.

The Third National Climate Assessment, which was released May 6, defines the Southeast as Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, as well as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. This diverse region is highly vulnerable to sea level rise, extreme heat waves and decreased water availability, which can lead to damaged infrastructure, reduced agricultural yield and saltwater intrusion into fresh water supplies. Many cities in the region are especially vulnerable to sea level rise and land subsidence, including New Orleans, Miami, Tampa, Charleston, Virginia Beach and Rincon, PR.

The Southeast is also critical to the nation’s military security. Virginia is home to Norfolk Navy Base, the world’s largest naval base, and Hampton Roads, the only domestic site which manufactures aircraft carriers. Increasing land subsidence in Virginia, combined with sea level rise, exposes these important facilities to flooding during storms and high tides.

The Gulf carries 40 percent of U.S. waterborne cargo and two-thirds of U.S. oil imports through major ports and critical inland infrastructure. It is estimated that a 90-day shutdown of Louisiana’s State Highway 1, which carries oil and gas resources inland, would cost the U.S. economy a staggering $7.8 billion. Adaptation and resilience efforts are crucial for asset protection, continued economic development, and infrastructure planning. While local officials throughout the Southeast have often taken the lead in resilience efforts, the National Climate Assessment finds that a coordinated, national effort is needed in order to protect this vulnerable region.


Briefing Highlights

  • Dr. Virginia Burkett, Chief Scientist for Global Change, U.S. Geological Survey, explained that the National Climate Assessment (NCA) predictions are in line with those of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
  • The three key messages from the Southeast section of the NCA are: sea level rise poses a threat to the natural and built environments; increasing temperatures will affect a variety of sectors and public health; and decreased water availability will affect the region’s economy and ecosystems.
  • In the last few decades, the Southeast has been warming at rates comparable to the global average, although it had previously experienced a short-term period of intense cooling. This accounts for why the region seems to be cooling on heat maps which show average trends over 110 years.
  • The precipitation and temperature patterns in the Southeast are changing: there will be 30-50 more days per year with temperatures of over 95 degrees Fahrenheit and more heavy precipitation events. These changes can harm ecosystems and communities through the increased outbreak of pests, more wildfires, and impacts on water availability.
  • The Southeast is especially vulnerable to sea level rise, which is rising in this region at the same rate as the global average. Sea levels are forecast to increase between 1 and 5.6 feet by 2100. Sea level rise is relatively greater along the Texas, Alabama and Louisiana coasts. South Florida is uniquely vulnerable to sea level rise.
  • The NCA found that there has been a substantial increase in the duration, frequency and intensity of storms, such as hurricanes, in the Southeast. There has also been an increase in the number of very strong (category 4 or 5) storms. Due to these impacts and other climate-related events, the Southeast has experience the most losses from weather and climate disasters.
  • Roger Natsuhara, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy, Installations and Environment, Department of the Navy, said that the Navy cannot solve this problem independently; it is working with communities to find solutions since Navy bases are dependent on their communities’ members and infrastructure.
  • The Navy is using Executive Orders, the Quadrennial Defense Review, and the DOD Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap (CCAR) to guide its actions on climate change. This has resulted in the creation of the Senior Sustainability Council, the DOD Climate Change Adaptation Workgroup (CCAWG), and the Navy Task Force on Climate Change (TFCC).
  • Climate change doesn’t just affect the Navy bases along the coast; droughts and water shortages, wildfires, extreme precipitation, and extreme weather events are negatively affecting bases across the country.
  • The Navy is focusing on integrating climate change into its existing policies and programs so that it permeates all ways of doing business, with the hope that the DOD will have a common, government-wide set of criteria to plan towards.
  • Rear Admiral (sel) Tim Gallaudet, Deputy Oceanographer of the Navy, Department of the Navy, noted that the Navy established its climate change task force in 2009. At the time, the Navy’s biggest concern was the opening of the Arctic. The Navy developed a roadmap for the Artic in 2010 (updated in 2014). Since 2009, the Navy has invested in the creation of a climate change adaptation roadmap that incorporates sound science, cooperative partnerships, and risk assessments.
  • The Navy has a three-pronged approach to addressing climate change strategy: the Arctic, global security, and infrastructure.
  • The Navy is primarily concerned with three aspects of sea level rise: its physical impacts, its challenges, and the opportunities that sea level rise presents.
  • The Department of Defense has several pathways to address solutions to sea level rise at installations, including: vulnerability methodologies, long term climate prediction, local sea level rise scenarios, and proven partnerships and leadership.
  • The Navy is currently conducting a pilot study at its facility in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Hampton Roads is very vulnerable to the impacts from climate change and sea level rise. The Navy has developed a task force that includes members of the community to address the area’s vulnerability. This pilot will serve as a model for other bases and communities across the nation.
  • Rear Admiral (sel) Tim Gallaudet concluded that the Navy is acting on climate change, along with the rest of the Department of Defense, but the Navy needs the support of U.S. citizens in order to meet its climate change goals.
  • Mr. Robert Kafalenos, Environmental Protection Specialist, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), U.S. Department of Transportation explained that the Department of Transportation (DOT) is integrating climate change into both its long-range planning, as well as at the individual project level. Its goal is to update the design process for engineers and managers, so they can integrate climate change adaptation into projects.
  • The FHWA uses a vulnerability assessment framework to define climate vulnerability. This framework has three levels: defining project scope, assessing vulnerability, and integrating vulnerability into decision-making. This framework has been used in a variety of pilot studies across the country, using areas that are on and off the coast, to assess roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure that are vulnerable to sea level rise and coastal storms.
  • One study currently under way at FHWA, is the Gulf Coast 2 Project in Mobile, Alabama. The first task of the study, identifying climate impacts and transportation assets, has been completed. FHWA will next be assessing the assets’ vulnerability and developing transferable risk management tools.
  • DOT is examining the effects of sea level rise, storm surges, extreme heat, as well as extreme precipitation. All of these will affect transportation systems, especially highways.
  • Climate change and its effects have impacted FWHA’s planning process. It now considers the effects that a changing climate will have on the project’s lifespan, maintenance cycles, investment decisions (especially concerning when and where to invest), reconstruction, and it also considers how adaptation will affect funding over the long-term.
  • The Gulf Coast project has resulted in a variety of tools that are now available for the DOT to integrate climate change stressors and vulnerabilities into its decision-making.