The List: Ten ways climate change could impact life in the Garden State

Increased flooding, prolonged droughts and rising sea levels could become the new normal in New Jersey later in the century

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Though still reeling from the recent terrorist attacks, French officials have vowed to move ahead with the previously-scheduled global climate change summit slated to begin later this month in a suburb of Paris.

Explaining the decision to a French television station, Prime Minister Manuel Valls called it an “essential meeting for humanity.”

Closer to home, WHYY NewsWorks — a content partner of NJ Spotlight — reports that the economic losses from superstorm Sandy and other major storms are increasingly leading insurance companies to incorporate climate modeling into their analyses of future risks.

The potential threats to New Jersey have been well-documented in numerous research papers and studies,,yet the Garden State lags behind many of its neighbors when it comes to consideration of long-term climate change predictions.

Environmentalists point to Gov. Chris Christie’s 2011 withdrawal from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative which he described as “gimmicky” and “a failure.” More recently, they’ve criticized the state’s silence on climate change and sea-level rise in its recovery documents following superstorm Sandy. They’re calling on New Jersey to develop a climate action plan, adopt stricter building codes, and take more of a comprehensive, regional approach to confronting the problem.

As the Paris summit approaches, here’s a reminder of some of the local stakes at play. For more information, visit the New Jersey Climate Adaptation Alliance’s working briefs on Climate Impacts in New Jersey.

1. Hotter temperatures

The statewide mean annual temperature in 2012 was the warmest in 118 years of record-keeping and more extreme temperatures continue year after year. The National Resources Defense Council warns that as a result of ongoing greenhouse gas emissions, large cities like Camden could experience summers with 20 to 30 days over 100 degrees by late in this century.

2. Drier climate and more droughts

Less overall snow amounts and earlier spring melts will mean lower stream flows in the late summer and reduced water levels in reservoirs. Drought conditions could make water more expensive, increase the risk of forest fires, and complicate matters for farmers and homeowners with private wells. Critics are calling for the state to address this problem by updating its Water Supply Master Plan, which hasn’t been updated since 1996.

3. Increased precipitation during big storms

While the overall trend is for a hotter and drier climate in New Jersey, we could also see an increase in precipitation from big storms. This could cause increased flooding along rivers and in vulnerable coastal areas. Extreme or torrential downpours also overwhelm the combined sewer systems in dozens of municipalities, polluting waterways with raw sewage and other contaminants from stormwater runoff.

4. Effect on agriculture

Agriculture is the third-largest industry in the state, and New Jersey is among the nation’s top 10 producers of blueberries, cranberries, peaches, tomatoes, peppers, snap beans, spinach, and squash, so the risk is enormous. Warmer temperatures and less rain would mean drier conditions and a greater threat of crop losses from droughts, pests, and fires. Higher carbon dioxide levels in the air could encourage the spread of invasive weeds. And while some crops could benefit from a longer growing season, cold weather vegetables like potatoes, lettuce, broccoli, and spinach would suffer.

5. Impacts on wildlife

Warmer ocean temperatures mean that ocean life like lobsters and tuna are migrating northwards, and some fish are migrating to deeper waters, which could hurt the state’s fishing industry. Sea level rise could be detrimental to bivalve habitats as more salt water encroaches into the state’s estuaries. Warmer winters in the state mean temperatures are no longer cold enough to kill off certain invasive species like the southern pine beetle that destroyed 14 thousand acres of trees in the New Jersey Pinelands a few years ago. Climate change could also lead to loss of critical habitat and increased stresses on already threatened and endangered species.

6. Sea level rise

Mid-range estimates of 3½ feet of sea level rise by the end of the century could expose an additional 200,000 residents and 90 more miles of major roads to flooding according to one Rutgers study.. And if the Gulf Steam continues to slow, the impact will be even worse. New Jersey is especially vulnerable due to geologic sinking of the land and high-density coastal development. By one estimate, 40 inches of sea level rise by 2100 could mean flooding similar to what occurred during Sandy could happen about once a decade.

7. Transportation infrastructure

With a dense network of roads and bridges, airports, rail lines and seaports — many of which are already aging and in desperate need of repair — New Jersey’s transportation infrastructure is also especially vulnerable. Sandy already gave us a small taste of what could come, causing $125 million in flood damage to NJ Transit trains parked in low-lying areas and causing serious damage to the Hudson River rail tunnels.

8. Stress on utilities

More severe weather could lead to increased power outages, and hotter summer temperatures would mean higher energy bills and further stresses on the power grid. Since Sandy, utilities have begun to consider spending billions of dollars to harden the grid and raise up electrical substations that are prone to flooding, and some of these costs will likely get passed along to ratepayers.

9. Public health

Experts caution that warmer temperatures could lead to more mosquitos and an increased risk of infectious diseases like West Nile virus and Dengue Fever. Exposure to extreme heat could worsen health conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular, and respiratory illnesses and cause problems among vulnerable populations like the elderly, young children and outdoor laborers. Increased ozone levels could exacerbate asthma as well as heart and lung disease.

10. Natural resources and the ecosystem

Sea level rise is expected to further threaten the state’s tidal wetlands, while hotter and drier conditions provide perfect fuel for the spread of wildfires, particularly in places like the Pine Barrens. As temperatures continue to warm, suitable habitat for some trees could shift northward by hundreds of miles by the end of the century, and common species like spruce and maple could decline or even disappear from parts of the state.

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