North Carolina 2050 Forecast

This is Dr. Emily Schoerning with AR, and I’d like to say hello to all our friends in North Carolina!  There’s a lot of interesting work going on in this state to build resilience, I know Raleigh, for one, is currently investing a lot of money to prepare for our RCP 4.5 future.  Let’s check out the forecast, see what we’re up against. 

First thing we’re going to take a look at is the projected sea level rise.  Now, you might have seen in the news there’s a lot of glacial melt and ice shelf collapse going on in Antarctica.  I think there is plenty of evidence in that we should look at the higher end models for sea level rise by midcentury, and that’s what we’ve been doing on this channel.  For your area, we’re going to expect between 1.5 and 2 feet of sea level rise by midcentury- and that’s probably higher than you’ll get- and maybe 3 feet by the end of the century under the RCP 4.5 pathway.  Just so you have some background on why we’re looking at what we’re looking at.  You might have heard figures like 6 feet of rise, 8 feet of rise, that’s not what we’re going to look at together.  Under our most likely future, under the RCP 4.5 pathway, those levels are not realistic.  We’re up against enough of a problem without making it scarier than it is.  Let’s take a look.

North Carolina has a lot of lovely communities on the sea, and you can see from the overhead view here that many of them are going to be impacted by sea level rise.  But we’re going to find out that some of them are much more vulnerable than others.  Ocracoke here, very vulnerable to projected rise.  But here, around Morehead City, you can see this seaside area has a lot more potential for resilience.  And over here by Kill Devil Hills, again, tremendous resilience potential.  So when we look at the fate of the Outer Banks, it’s complicated.  We will experience loss, we will experience grief, there are communities that are going to need to relocate, there are people who will lose their homes, but compare this outlook to that of the Florida Keys, over in my Florida video.  The Keys will be almost entirely lost, but the Outer Banks, there’s a substantial amount of habitat, recreation areas, and populated areas, communities, that we can preserve.  That can be saved.  I know I’m a glass-half full type here, but it does help me feel better, looking at how much can be saved. 

We’ve got to remember that this visual is just sea level rise, so storm surge, it’s going to be more intense, it’s going to be higher than these projections.  Let’s look at the hurricane models real quick, 1492, you can see they’re projected to move towards the gulf, away from the open Atlantic.  So you’re going to want to think about the big storms increasingly coming from overland, you know sometimes they hit Florida and they’re not exactly tired out by the time they get up to North Carolina.  You think about that pattern, you know you’re going to see increased projections for that very heavy rain in your future, and that’s a big concern.  But this model is not as outright alarming for your state as it would be for our friends on the Gulf, that’s for sure.  You’ll have plenty of water problems to deal with, but not so many wind problems as gulf residents.

Now, most of North Carolina’s population of course is inland, let’s get some information that lets us look at the state as a whole.  Let’s check out how the winter and summer are projected to change.

Summer, most of the state is looking at about a month of additional days over 86.  You can see that Asheville is in that area highlighted in my Appalachia long-range video, pretty good preservation there, you’ll still see a pretty cool summer.  That area has a lot of hope for retaining the same beautiful landscapes we see there today.  Appalachia is one of the best places in the country to dig in and build resilience here in the US.  Even under a worst-case scenario, even under the RCP 8.5 pathway, where we do not reduce emissions at all, the change in those mountains will be fairly mild.  And that is not true in many of the western mountain ranges, Appalachia is looking pretty special.

Over to the winter projections, where we’re using plant hardiness zones as a proxy for winter lows.  We’re looking at mild winter warming, slightly milder winters.  Right now, Durham has a slightly cooler winter than Raleigh, they’re going to become more similar.  By the coast, you see some zone 9 areas emerging.  Your best comparison for that is the contemporary winters in Charleston, and I don’t know about you but I have found that a very pleasant place to visit in the winter.  With the summer changes, too, thinking about how it feels in Charleston is a good approximation for the future of North Carolina’s coast. 

Let’s check out projected precipitation changes, nice visual on current trends here on 760, you can see where it’s getting wetter and drier now, and we do expect those trends to continue and intensify as we approach midcentury.  Keep in mind the key here, which really bothers me, where blue is dryer, and red is wetter.  So a lot of the state has these dark red circles, meaning extreme rain trend.  Those heavy rains are getting bad already, check out this figure from the Carolinas regarding a 2015 extreme rain event, 774.  You can see that these changes are profound enough that the heavy rains have already exceeded 1,000 year storm total estimates.  These rains are very serious.  We are talking about the potential for extreme rainstorms that will overpower existing infrastructure.  There is a need in North Carolina to build resilience into the bridge and road systems in a big way, using designs that allow for drainage and that assume flooding rains.  These are big design challenges, but there are people at work on those challenges in city governments throughout your state, and most particularly in Raleigh. 

Circling back a little, talking more about the heat, Raleigh, I’m afraid I have to give you some bad news.  You, Birmingham, and New Orleans are cities on the top of the federal government’s heat concern list, in good part because you are projected to see a big increase in the number of warm nights you experience a year.  Let’s check out the warm night data.  762/763.

North Carolina, you can see, historically has good nighttime cooling, very few warm nights.  But that’s changing now, and it’s projected to change further.  You can see Raleigh in particular has a heat island forming.  This wouldn’t be so concerning, except that this area has not seen a lot of warm nights previously, so this change will be larger than for other cities.  We’re talking about much more power consumption.  And people who did without air conditioning before, who were able to rely on the natural nighttime cooling for their health and wellbeing, they’re going to need air conditioning now.  It is not going to be a luxury to have air conditioning, it will be a necessity for public health.

Those warmer nights, and I do hope that all of you around Asheville are looking at this visual, and seeing it does not include you.  Asheville, you are not only having summer cool conservation, you are also enjoying nighttime cool conservation, very, very nice spot.  But for the rest of North Carolina, in particular those of you closer to the sea, those warmer nights will have a big impact on agriculture.  Soy in particular will be experiencing reduced yields.  Although you often have daytime temperatures that would drive pod fill down in your area, it hasn’t been a big problem because the plants use those lower nighttime temperatures for their growth.

Without the projected loss of those cool nights, you need a shift towards crops that can tolerate really warm temperatures.  I’m happy to say there is more good news on that front for North Carolina than for many states experiencing this type of warming.  Many of your current top crops, like sweet potatoes and bell peppers, are very tolerant of the type of heat you are projected to see.  So in your state, I think the agricultural transition has the potential to be less abrupt, using more skills your farmers already have, than in some other parts of the southeastern region.  There are many places in your region where we are looking at changes on a much more more dramatic scale than North Carolina.

So, let’s take a few minutes and try to pull these threads together.  By 2050, North Carolina will have changed considerably, with a longer, warmer summer, and in many places, substantially warmer nights.  As we think about cities that feel similar today to what you’ll feel like in the future, think about Savannah and Charleston.  So different, right?  But those are beautiful cities, this is not an inherently terrifying transition.  You also have potential for a smoother agricultural transition than many of your nearby states.  And although some of your coastal communities will suffer, some places will be lost, you do have a some of those special places, beautiful seaside places, with wonderful conservation potential.  If you want some really good news, look to the western half of the state, as you approach the mountains- you may have seen me highlight that notable conservation potential in previous videos, it’s just excellent. 

Your biggest threats are going to be dealing with those extreme rains, and with the changes to the coastal areas due to sea level rise.  These are big challenges, hard stuff, but you’re already at work.  And there’s a lot you can do to prepare.  I would say that North Carolina has a strong resilience outlook, and I hope you are able to take in not just that there will be changes, and that there will be loss, but that you have a real shot at preserving some of the most beloved places and landscapes in your state, passing them on to future generations.  Strong resilience outlook if you put in the work.  Very strong.

This is Dr. Schoerning with AR, signing out.  Please like and subscribe, help get the message out there.  There is hope.  We can prepare for what’s coming.  Let’s get ready.