flooded suburb

Climate change touches all parts of the world in uniquely local ways. A string of severe heatwaves took its toll across the globe in 2018, causing deadly wildfires in California, Russia, Sweden, and Greece. The Great Floods of 2019 impacted 14 million people in the United States as the disaster unfolded over months.

Thankfully, 2020 predictions of flooding are milder than the historic events of last year. However, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasters do warn of moderate to major flooding in 23 states this year. And the agency expects much of the western U.S. to experience dryer than average conditions, the eastern half of the country is predicted to receive above-average rainfall.

As the U.S. grapples to respond to the coronavirus, people could be more vulnerable to extreme weather events. Social distancing, travel restrictions, a strained medical system, and stay-at-home orders complicate responding to the climate crisis. For example, the American Meteorological Society recommends using public tornado shelters despite, concerns about the coronavirus, if they provide the best shelter available.

Some people might be less likely to seek medical treatment for heat-related illnesses due to concern for contracting the virus.

dry grass silhouetted by bright sun
The major effects of climate change fall into five categories: extreme heat, drought, wildfires, coastal flooding, and inland flooding. Photo by Xavier Coiffic on Unsplash

Climate Change Risks

Although the impacts of climate change are extremely complex, the major effects fall into five categories: extreme heat, drought, wildfires, coastal flooding, and inland flooding. Each effect presents unique risks to human health as well as wildlife, infrastructure, and food production.

To better adapt to changing climate, localized scientific data and historic patterns can help highlight who is at the greatest risk. Keep in mind that the impacts of climate change are varied and encompass anything from air quality to food security. Gaining insights into the local impacts of the climate crisis enables us to better prepared and employ mitigation strategies.

Because the U.S. is a large and geographically diverse country, climate change risks vary considerably by location. This means that wildfires could be raging in California due in part to drought, while crops are drowning in South Dakota.

Awareness of regional risks is one of the best ways to enable people to effectively prepare.

Your Region’s Vulnerabilities

Although climate change affects us all, some areas of the globe are especially vulnerable due to geographic placement. The Global Climate Risk Index by Germanwatch highlights which countries have been the most affected by weather-related loss events and suffer the greatest damage. In 2018, the countries affected most were Japan, the Philippines, Germany, Madagascar, India, and Sri Lanka.

A new study by SafeHome.org using data from Climate Central ranks the states by their risk to the consequences of climate change, creating a climate change risk index. The most at-risk states are Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Mississippi. Meanwhile, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Colorado are at the bottom of the list.

Knowing your region’s climate risks helps you make better decisions. For example, if your area is prone to tidal flooding, exercise caution when purchasing real estate.

Being aware of weather trends in your area can also be helpful for gaining awareness of how climate change impacts your region. NOAA publishes national monthly climate reports as well as status updates on droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, and flooding. They monitor a variety of indicators related to climate and the effects on society and the economy, including a heat stress index, a crop moisture stress index, and a residential energy demand temperature index.

two firefighters with hose in wildfire
In the U.S., 4.5 million homes are at risk from wildfire. Image by 272447 from Pixabay

Wildfire-prone States

In 2018, there were more than 58,000 wildfires in the United States. The devastating Camp Fire in Northern California took 85 lives and destroyed almost 14,000 homes.

The states that saw the highest increase in natural disasters were fire-prone states, according to an analysis by QuoteWizard using FEMA data from 1980 to 1999 and 2000 to 2017. The study found that natural disasters have increased by 165 percent nationwide between the two time periods. This is because wildfires are becoming more frequent, deadly, and larger in size.

The states with the greatest increase in natural disasters were western states that are vulnerable to fires. Many areas in the west experience wet winters, followed by hot, dry summers. The wet conditions allow the foliage growth, which fuels the wildfires during the hot, dry summers. Wildfires are more prevalent during dry, warm conditions, thus droughts intensify their probability. Dry conditions, combined with forest management practices to contain forest fires, leave a tinderbox of dense new growth, thick underbrush, and unharvested timber.

In the U.S. alone, 4.5 million homes have a high or extremely high risk of wildfires. Of these, 2 million are located in California. Most of the largest wildfires in California have been caused by humans or power lines. Unfortunately, this makes it more likely that fires occur in more populated areas, increasing fatalities and property damage.

Being aware of ripe conditions for wildfires can allow people to be especially diligent about fire safety, create an evacuation plan, and take precautions.

Mitigating Floods

More than 100 million Americans are at risk of spring floods this year, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. NOAA warns of risks of major flooding in parts of the upper Midwest and moderate flooding from the Northern Plains, though the Missouri Valley, and into the Southeast.

Some basic flood preparedness can help you respond better to this potential threat. Knowing if you live on a floodplain and if local rivers and streams flood easily can help determine your risk.

If you do live on a floodplain, try to elevate and reinforce your home. Raise your furnace, water heater, and electric panel to floors that are less likely to flood. Install check valves to prevent floodwater from backing up into your plumbing system. Construct barriers such as levees and berms to keep water at bay and seal basement walls to keep water from seeping in.

aerial view of flooded New Orleans
More than 100 million Americans are at risk of spring floods this year. Feature image by David Mark from Pixabay

Climate Resilience

To better prepare for the climate crisis, 16 states and two cities are using the five-step Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE) framework to identify likely climate impacts in their communities, potential health effects associated with these impacts, and their most at-risk populations and locations. Awareness of this vital information allows states and municipalities to create adaptation plans and evaluate the impact of mitigation tactics. It allows us to learn about our changing world and how to best respond.

Understanding the impacts of climate change on human health is a very complex topic. The most obvious human impacts of extreme weather events are injuries and even fatalities. But environmental degradation can be the root cause of some greater societal issues, such as forced migration, diseases carried by vectors, and mental health disorders.

Feature image by David Mark from Pixabay 

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.