This story was originally published by Grist.
Every four years, the federal government is required to gather up the leading research on how climate change is affecting Americans, boil it all down, and then publish a National Climate Assessment. This report, a collaboration between 13 federal agencies and a wide array of academic researchers, takes stock of just how severe global warming has become and meticulously breaks down its effects by geography — 10 distinct regions in total, encompassing all of the country’s states and territories.
The last report, which the Trump administration tried to bury when it came out in 2018, was the most dire since the first assessment was published in 2000. Until now.
The Fifth National Climate Assessment, released on Tuesday by the Biden administration, is unique for its focus on the present. Like previous versions, it looks at how rising temperatures will change the United States in decades to come, but it also makes clear that the rising seas, major hurricanes, and other disastrous consequences of climate change predicted in prior reports have begun to arrive. The effects are felt in every region. In the 1980s, the country saw a billion-dollar disaster every four months on average. Now, there’s one billion-dollar disaster every three weeks, according to the assessment. All of the many extreme weather events that hit the U.S., from the tiniest flood to the biggest hurricane, cost around $150 billion every year — and that’s likely a huge underestimate.
“Climate change is here,” said Arati Prabhakar, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Biden administration during a briefing on the report. “Whether it’s wildfires or floods or drought, whether it’s extreme heat or storms, we know that climate change has made its way into our lives and it’s unfolding as predicted.”
The report outlines steps every level of government can take to combat the climate crisis. And it takes stock of progress that has been made over the past four years. There’s good news on that front: President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress have managed to pass historic climate measures that are expected to reduce the country’s carbon footprint between 32 and 51 percent by 2035, putting the U.S. closer to meeting its emissions targets under the global climate treaty known as the Paris Agreement. A number of cities and states have passed climate policies that can serve as a blueprint for what actions the rest of the country, and indeed the world at large, needs to take in the coming years. California’s clean car program and the Northeast’s regional carbon cap-and-trade program are two examples.
Despite this progress, climate impacts — oppressive heat domes in the Southeast that linger for weeks on end, record-breaking drought in the Southwest, bigger and more damaging hurricanes in the Atlantic basin, wildfires of unusual duration and intensity along the West Coast — are accelerating. That’s the nature of human-caused climate change: The consequences of a century and a half of burning fossil fuels are arriving now. Even if we stopped burning oil and gas tomorrow, some degree of planetary warming is baked in.
This reality, the report says, leaves the country no choice but to adapt, and quickly. “We need to be moving much faster,” the Biden administration said. “We need more transformative adaptation actions to keep pace with climate change.”
The Grist staff, located all over the country, reviewed the assessment to provide you with the most important takeaways for your region. To see the full list of regions, read Grist’s story here.
Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin
If you’ve ever driven through Iowa, Illinois, or Indiana, you won’t be surprised to learn that the region produces almost a third of the world’s corn and soybeans. In fact, there are so many crops getting irrigated, water is evaporating off them and cooling summer days in parts of the Midwest, like central Wisconsin, countering some of the warming from climate change. But rapid swings between flooding and drought, along with the spread of corn earworms, Japanese beetles, and other pests, are hurting these staple crops and the farmers who grow them. Climate change, the report says, has also led to smaller harvests of wild rice, a staple that’s central to the identity of the Indigenous Anishinaabe.
The region is getting more rain, and that’s promising for wheat production, but bad news for aging dams, roads, bridges, and wastewater facilities, which are already getting overwhelmed by water. The amount of precipitation during the 1 percent of rainiest days in the Midwest has increased by 45 percent since 1958, the report says.
The Great Lakes, the crown jewel of the Midwest, are among the fastest-warming lakes in the world, with climate change stressing out an ecosystem already plagued by toxic algae and invasive species and also reducing populations of walleye and trout. Warmer winters mean there’s less ice atop lakes and ponds, threatening traditions like ice fishing from Minnesota to Michigan.
Those less-harsh winters are also expanding the ranges of disease-carrying ticks and mosquitoes. Lyme disease has exploded in the Midwest to the point that it’s now endemic, and by 2050, the Ohio Valley may see more than 200 cases of West Nile virus every year. Another once-rare phenomenon that’ll become more common: wildfire smoke. Midwesterners got a preview this summer when smoke poured in from the fires in Canada, inundating Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio with “very unhealthy” air.
— Kate Yoder
Great Northern Plains
Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming
In parts of the country like southwestern Nebraska, it’s not uncommon for baseball-sized hail to fall from the sky during thunderstorms in the summer months. Unfortunately for people in the northern Great Plains, it’s likely to get worse: The region will experience the largest increase in hail risk, according to the report, along with more storms. By 2071, days with hail of two inches in diameter or more could increase threefold and cover almost nine times more ground. Hail that size can smash windows, dent cars, and cause severe injuries.
The report highlights a shift in the region’s water, so vital for the landlocked landscape spanning Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. Decreasing snowpack could cut short winter tourism seasons and reduce available surface water, putting more stress on limited groundwater. At the same time, more flooding and extreme weather could hit communities with the fewest resources to respond. Two storms in 2018 destroyed nearly 600 homes on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, with half not repaired a year later.
Hotter temperatures have already limited harvests of traditional foods and medicine used by many indigenous nations. That includes wild turnips and chokecherries, culturally significant plants for the Lakota people. Rising temperatures have also dried the soil, raising wildfire risks. In the Great Plains grasslands, the number of wildfires has already more than doubled since 1985. Forest fires in Montana and Wyoming have shot up almost ninefold since the 1970s. All these trends are likely to get worse.
But these problems might not be enough to scare off newcomers trying to get away from droughts and wildfires elsewhere in the country. The report suggests that fewer cold snaps and a longer growing season in the Great Plains could lure people migrating from other regions in search of a new place to live.
— Akielly Hu
Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia
The sunny and fast-growing Southeast is on a collision course with climate change. Its cities have gobbled up more than 1.3 million acres of exceptionally biodiverse land since 1985, and more than a million people have moved to Florida alone since 2018. These newcomers are sitting ducks for worsening disasters, especially floods. The Southeast has seen almost two dozen hurricanes make landfall since 2018, and these monster storms are ballooning to full strength much faster as they cross a hotter Gulf of Mexico. The slow creep of sea-level rise has also led to more frequent tidal flooding in coastal cities like Miami. That’s bad news for the millions of people who have bought waterfront homes over the past few decades.
To say the region is ill-prepared for this era of climate disaster would be an understatement. Many Southeastern cities are plagued with flimsy manufactured housing, antiquated drainage systems, and decades-old power grids. Heat stroke will become a bigger danger for outdoor workers, and more blackouts will knock out life-saving AC units in big cities. Louisiana saw more than 20 such events between 2011 and 2021. Warmer spring temperatures will also increase pollen counts in cities like Atlanta, worsening air quality. All these impacts will be more dangerous for the region’s Black residents, who live in hotter and more flood-prone places than their neighbors.
The region’s declining rural areas also face existential threats, as industries find themselves unprepared for a warmer world. Farmers of cash crops such as citrus and soybeans, for instance, are fighting a four-front war against drought, flooding, heat, and wildfires, which all reduce annual yields. Extreme weather will continue sapping these moribund economies, leading to more out-migration and urban growth.
— Jake Bittle
Southern Great Plains
Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas
The southern Great Plains encompasses a stunning variety of terrain, from the windy plains of Kansas to the swamps of East Texas. In some parts of the region, annual precipitation is as low as 10 inches, and in other parts it’s as high as 50 inches. Accordingly, the impact of climate change looks very different depending on where you are. In the high plains of Oklahoma, drought has drained rivers and aquifers for rural communities, but residents of large Texas cities like Houston and Dallas have to worry about floods overwhelming asphalt streets and clogged storm drains.
Kansas and Oklahoma don’t face the risk of the billion-dollar disasters that plague Texas, but the report finds that earlier springs in those two landlocked states have “reduced plant growth and diminished productivity” for all-important wheat and sorghum crops. Lyme disease-bearing ticks have started to appear even in the depths of winter, when they’re supposed to be hibernating.
Energy is the backbone of the region’s economy, especially in Texas. This massive industry has helped accelerate climate change, and it’s also vulnerable to climate shifts: Hurricanes and increasingly large rain storms could knock out plants and refineries on the Gulf Coast. Agriculture and livestock, the other main industries, are also vulnerable to droughts: Dry spells in Kansas and Oklahoma have “increased labor demands for feeding, forcing producers to sell genetically valuable animals,” the report notes. These shifts could cost billions of dollars to the region’s economy.
The report also highlights threats to another mainstay of life in the South: football. Extreme heat and flooding could endanger athletes and force schools to postpone games. This already happened in 2021, when Hurricane Ida forced the Tulane University football team to play a game at the University of Oklahoma instead of at home in New Orleans.
— Jake Bittle
Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah
A succession of droughts, fires, and heat waves has thrown the Southwest’s economy into turmoil over the past decade, upending housing markets and stalwart industries like agriculture.
The most visible disaster in the region is wildfire. The already hot and dry Southwest is getting hotter and drier, which makes it easy for big fires to rage for weeks and even months, destroying thousands of homes. It also means that “fire season” now lasts roughly all year, as 2021’s Marshall Fire in Colorado demonstrated. The cost of putting out wildfires in California exceeded $2 billion that year, according to the report. As a result of all this damage, insurance costs are skyrocketing for everyone, even city dwellers who aren’t directly threatened by blazes.
On California’s coast, rising seas have eaten away at bluffs, causing stretches of road to collapse into the water. The authors of the report write that a rash of marine heat waves in the Pacific between 2013 and 2020 caused massive die-offs in the state’s salmon fishery and beached starving sea lions. Under the worst warming scenarios, the Pacific sardine fishery could migrate as much as 500 miles north.
In the desert, farms, ranches, and cities have drained reservoirs on big waterways like the Colorado River. Rural residents in California and Arizona are seeing their wells go dry during increasingly severe droughts, thanks in large part to thirsty nut and dairy farms that have sucked up groundwater. And drought has been even more challenging for the many Native American tribes. The Navajo Nation, for instance, lacks legal access to the Colorado River, so most residents haul their water by truck. Building new water infrastructure is more than 70 times as expensive on the reservation as it would be in the average U.S. town, according to the report
— Jake Bittle
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