Heat waves, coastal flooding, warmer oceans, and rising sea levels threaten the Northeast region’s environmental and economic systems, jeopardizing the health and safety of its residents, according to the latest climate report by the federal government.
The grim report of more than 1,600 pages, concludes those events are already happening and likely will intensify in the future. The Fourth National Climate Assessment, produced by 13 federal agencies, was released this past Friday and for the first time detailed how climate change will affect specific regions around the country.
Its release, a couple of months after other recent studies on global warming, occurs at a time when states like New Jersey are moving aggressively to deal with climate change at the same time as the Trump administration is rolling back initiatives to reduce emissions from power plants and vehicles that contribute to global warming.
“This report makes it clear that climate change is not some problem in the distant future,’’ said Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science at the Union of Concerned Scientists and one of the authors of the report.
“It’s happening right now in every part of the country. When people see wildfires, hurricanes and heat waves they’re experiencing unlike anything they’ve seen before, there’s a reason for that, and it’s called climate change,’’ she said.
Look out: weather, air, water
For the Northeast, including New Jersey, changing climate threatens the health and well-being of people through more extreme weather, warmer temperatures and degradation of air and water quality, the report said.
“These environmental changes are expected to lead to health-related impacts and costs, including additional deaths, emergency room visits and hospitalizations, and a lower quality of life,’’ according to the assessment. The effects likely will particularly impact the most disadvantaged populations in the Northeast.
The more densely populated and developed urban areas already tend to have higher temperatures than surrounding regions due to the urban heat-island effect. Projected increases in temperatures in the Northeast may result in approximately 650 additional premature deaths per year from extreme heat, the report said.
Climate change also threatens to reverse gains made in recent decades in air quality, particularly for ground-level ozone, or smog, according to the assessment. New Jersey has reduced ozone levels dramatically in recent years but has yet to achieve the national health quality standard for the pollutant, which increases respiratory ailments for the young and elderly.
Air quality also could suffer from more frequent and severe wildfires due to climate change. That is of particular concern in the Pinelands in southern New Jersey, a 1.1 million acre preserve considered one of the most combustible forests in the country.
Economic impacts at the coast
Warmer ocean temperatures and sea-level rise also could adversely affect the region’s coastal and oceanic economies — impacting recreation, fishing and tourism by changes in marine ecosystems and the ability of coastal communities to adapt as climate risks increase, the report said. Some fish species already are moving northward because of higher ocean temperatures.
Rising sea levels and storm surge could result in up to $30 billion in property losses for coastal New Jersey and Delaware by 2100, according to some projections in the report. Many coastal communities will be transformed by the end of the century — even under the lowest scenarios of climate-change risk.
Not only communities will be affected by sea-level rise. In southern New Jersey, Atlantic white cedar stands along the Bass River are dying because of increasing encroachment from wetlands in forested areas, a process described as “ghost forests.’’
Climate change also will muddy efforts to rebuild and modernize an aging infrastructure nearing the end of its life expectancy, the report said. That is an issue yet to be addressed in New Jersey, whose water and sewer systems need tens of billions of dollars in new investments to prevent contamination of drinking water and streams, rivers and bays.
Major negative impacts on critical infrastructure and urban economies are already occurring and will become more common with a changing climate throughout the Northeast, according to the report.
The report noted that many states, such as New Jersey, and a growing number of municipalities have begun to incorporate climate risks into their planning, but that implementation of adaption strategies is still in the early stages.