Adam Terando, U.S. Geological Survey, Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center
Lynne Carter, Louisiana State University
Kirstin Dow, University of South Carolina
Kevin Hiers, Tall Timbers Research Station
Kenneth E. Kunkel, North Carolina State University
Aranzazu Lascurain, North Carolina State University
Doug Marcy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Michael Osland, U.S. Geological Survey
Paul Schramm, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Alessandra Jerolleman, Jacksonville State University
Vincent Brown, Louisiana State University
Barry Keim, Louisiana State University
Julie K. Maldonado, Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network
Colin Polsky, Florida Atlantic University
April Taylor, Chickasaw Nation
Allyza Lustig, Program Coordinator
Matthew Dzaugis, Program Coordinator
Natalie Bennett, Adaptation and Assessment Analyst
<b>Carter</b>, L., A. Terando, K. Dow, K. Hiers, K.E. Kunkel, A. Lascurain, D. Marcy, M. Osland, and P. Schramm, 2018: Southeast. In <i>Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II</i> [Reidmiller, D.R., C.W. Avery, D.R. Easterling, K.E. Kunkel, K.L.M. Lewis, T.K. Maycock, and B.C. Stewart (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, pp. 743–808. doi: 10.7930/NCA4.2018.CH19
Rural communities are integral to the Southeast’s cultural heritage and to the strong agricultural and forest products industries across the region. More frequent extreme heat episodes and changing seasonal climates are projected to increase exposure-linked health impacts and economic vulnerabilities in the agricultural, timber, and manufacturing sectors. By the end of the century, over one-half billion labor hours could be lost from extreme heat-related impacts. Such changes would negatively impact the region’s labor-intensive agricultural industry and compound existing social stresses in rural areas related to limited local community capabilities and associated with rural demography, occupations, earnings, literacy, and poverty incidence. Reduction of existing stresses can increase resilience.
In the Southeast, over 56% of land remains rural (nonmetropolitan) and home to approximately 16 million people, or about 17% percent of the region’s population.250 These rural areas are important to the social and economic well-being of the Southeast. Many in rural communities are maintaining connections to traditional livelihoods and relying on natural resources that are inherently vulnerable to climate change. The Southeast has the second highest number of farmworkers hired per year compared to other National Climate Assessment (NCA) regions.251 Climate trends and possible climate futures show patterns that are already impacting—and are expected to further impact—rural sectors, from agriculture and forestry to human health and labor productivity (Ch. 10: Ag & Rural, KM 3). For example, shrimping, oystering, and fishing along the coast are long-standing traditions in the coastal economy that are expected to face substantial challenges. For example, by the end of the century, annual oyster harvests in the Southeast are projected to decline between 20% (19%–22%) under a lower scenario (RCP4.5) and 46% (44%–48%) under a higher scenario (RCP8.5), leading to projected price increases of 48% (RCP4.5) to 140% (RCP8.5).35 Projected warming ocean temperatures, sea level rise, and ocean and coastal acidification are raising concern over future harvests (Ch. 9: Oceans, KM 2).35,252 While adaptation and resilience can moderate climate change impacts, rural areas generally face other stressors, such as poverty and limited access to healthcare, which will make coping to these climate-related challenges more difficult.
Heat-related stresses are presently a major concern in the Southeast. Future temperature increases are projected to pose challenges for human health. While recent regional temperature trends have not shown the same consistent rate of daytime maximum temperature increase as observed in other parts of the United States, climate model simulations strongly suggest that daytime maximum temperatures are likely to increase as humans continue to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.13 The resulting temperature increases are expected to add to the heat health burden in rural, as well as urban, areas.35 Projected temperature increases also pose challenges for crop production dependent on periods of lower temperatures to reach full productivity. Drought has been a recurrent issue in the Southeast affecting agriculture, forestry, and water resources.253 With rapid growth in population and overall demand, drought is increasingly a concern for water resource management sectors such as cities, ecosystems, and energy production.
Diverse Rural Regions
Urban and rural areas exist along a continuum from major metro areas to suburbs, small towns, and lightly populated places. These areas are linked through many processes, commuting patterns, and shared central services, such as airports and hospitals, that connect the risks. Rapid population growth with associated urbanization and suburbanization over the last several decades has resulted in a more fine-grained forest landscape with smaller and more numerous forest patches.254 Agriculture, manufacturing, tourism, and other major economic sectors are spread across the Southeast region. Rural counties in the region generally have a diversified economy with a relatively low percentage being heavily dependent on one sector. While well known for agriculture and forestry, rural areas also support manufacturing and tourism.250
In 2013, approximately 34% of the U.S. manufacturing output, or about $700 billion (dollar year not reported), came from the Southeast and Texas, including rural areas.255 While manufacturing growth has been particularly strong in the Southeast in recent years, future climate changes would pose challenges for economic competitiveness. For companies involved in food processing, there are additional secondary economic risks associated with climate impacts on crops and livestock that could alter price or availability.64,255 Facilities that are energy- or water-intensive are more likely to face increases in the costs and decreases in the availability of these resources, with potential impacts to their economic competitiveness.246,255
Energy production, and its dependence on water availability, is a key concern in the Southeast, given the region’s growing population and large, diversified economy. An increasing number of high heat and dry days as the climate warms poses a risk to efficient power generation, particularly under conditions where the mode of primary generation moves towards natural gas and water-intensive nuclear power.256
Risks to Agriculture and Forestry
Agriculture, livestock rearing, and forestry activities are widespread and varied through the Southeast region.7 Climate change is expected to have an overall negative impact on agricultural productivity in the United States,35 although some crops could also become newly viable alternatives (Key Message 3, Figure 19.15). Increases in temperatures, water stress, freeze-free days, drought, and wildfire risks, together with changing conditions for invasive species and the movement of diseases, create a number of potential risks for existing agricultural systems (Ch. 10: Ag & Rural, KM 1).7 In particular, precipitation trends for the Southeast region show an inclination towards slightly drier summers, which could reduce productivity, and wetter fall seasons, which can make it difficult to harvest the full crop. Multimodel averages of climate model simulations (CMIP3 [SRES A2] and CMIP5 [RCP8.5] higher scenarios) show that there is a greater risk of drier summers by the middle of the century in the western portion of the Southeast and in southern Florida, while wetter fall seasons are more likely in the eastern portion of the region.257
The conditions for raising and harvesting crops and livestock are projected to change. Higher temperatures can result in decreasing productivity of some cultivated crops, including cotton, corn, soybeans, and rice.7 Livestock, which includes hogs and pigs, horses, ponies, mules, burros, and donkeys as well as poultry and processed poultry for consumption (for example, chicken nuggets), is a large component of the agricultural sector for these states and the Nation.258 Livestock are all vulnerable to heat stress, and their care under projected future conditions would require new or enhanced adaptive strategies (Ch. 10: Ag & Rural, KM 3).
Recent changes in seasonal temperatures that are critical for plant development will continue to impact regionally important crops. Plants collected from the wild may become less available as the ideal conditions for their growth shift to other areas (see Case Study “Mountain Ramps”). Peaches—an important crop in the Southeast—require an adequate period of cool temperatures, called the chill period, to produce yields that are economically viable. Peaches also require warm temperatures at specific times during their development.259 If the warm temperatures come too early, the chill periods could be too short or the peach blossoms can flower too soon and be in danger of late freeze impacts. A late freeze in March 2017 caused over a billion dollars of damages to peaches and other fruit crops.84 To assist peach growers in adapting to such changes, researchers are working to develop peach varieties that can produce quality fruits in warmer winters and are developing winter chill models that can assist in adaptation planning efforts.260,261
Forests, both natural and plantation, in the Southeast are vulnerable to climate variability and change. Southeastern forests represent almost 27% of the U.S. total262 and are the highest-valued crop in the region.7 The vast majority of forest is held in private hands, primarily corporate. Forest cover ranges from almost 50% to 80% in these states, creating large areas of interface between populations and forests.262 Jobs in timber, logging, and support for agriculture and forestry totaled approximately 458,000.263 (See Ch. 6: Forests, KM 3 for additional discussion on forest change impacts on rural landscapes.)
The Southeast is one of the most dynamic regions for forest change on the globe,269 though much of the change owes to intensive rotations of pine production and economic forces that drive frequent conversion between forest and agricultural uses in rural areas.270,271 Climate is expected to have an impact on the region’s forests primarily through changes in moisture regimes.272 Species migration westward across the eastern United States in response to changing precipitation patterns has already been noted.273 Drought is likely to alter fire regimes and further interact with species distributions (see Key Message 3). The interactions of altered precipitation and natural disturbances will be important in understanding impacts to the forests not dominated by industrial forestry (Ch. 6: Forests, KM 1 and KM 3).274
Wildfire is a well-known risk in the Southeast region, where it occurs with greater frequency than any other U.S. region.275 However, mitigation strategies, particularly the use of prescribed fire, can significantly reduce wildfire risk and have been widely adopted across rural communities in the Southeast.190 A doubling of prescribed fire at the landscape scale has been found to reduce wildfire ignitions by a factor of four,4 while it is well documented that prescribed fire reduces the potential for crown fire in treated forest stands.276 With greater projected fire risks,191,277 more attention on how to foster fire-adapted communities offers opportunities for risk reduction (see Case Study “Prescribed Fire” and Key Message 3).278,279
Heat, Health, and Livelihoods
Heat-related health threats are already a risk in outdoor jobs and activities. While heat illness is more often associated with urban settings, rural populations are also at risk. For example, higher rates of heat-related illness have been reported in rural North Carolina compared to urban locations.280 However, strategies to reduce health impacts on hot days, such as staying indoors or altering times outdoors, are already contributing to reducing heat-related illness in the Southeast.281
Workers in the agriculture, forestry, hunting, and fishing sectors together with construction and support, waste, and remediation services work are the most highly vulnerable to heat-related deaths in the United States, representing almost 68% of heat-related deaths nationally.282 Six of the ten states with the highest occupational heat-related deaths in these sectors are in the Southeast region, accounting for 28.6% of occupational heat-related deaths between 2000 and 2010.282 By 2090, under a higher scenario (RCP8.5), the Southeast is projected to have the largest heat-related impacts on labor productivity in the country, resulting in average annual losses of 570 million labor hours, or $47 billion (in 2015 dollars, undiscounted), a cost representing a third of total national projected losses, although these figures do not include adaptations by workers or industries (Figure 19.21).35
Investing in increased cooling is one likely form of adaptation. Among U.S. regions, the Southeast is projected to experience the highest costs associated with meeting increased electricity demands in a warmer world.35
Figure 19.21: Projected Changes in Hours Worked
Figure 19.21: This map shows the estimated percent change in hours worked in 2090 under a higher scenario (RCP8.5). Projections indicate an annual average of 570 million labor hours lost per year in the Southeast by 2090 (with models ranging from 340 million to 820 million labor hours).35 Estimates represent a change in hours worked as compared to a 2003–2007 average baseline for high-risk industries only. These industries are defined as agriculture, forestry, and fishing; hunting, mining, and construction; manufacturing, transportation, and utilities. Source: adapted from EPA 2017.35
Compounding Stresses and Constraints to Adaptation
The people of the rural Southeast confront a number of social stresses likely to add to the challenges posed by increases in climate stresses.283 Rural communities tend to be more vulnerable due to factors such as demography, occupations, earnings, literacy, poverty incidence, and community capacities (Ch. 10: Ag & Rural, KM 4).8,9,10 Reducing stress associated with these factors can increase household and community resilience.9,284
Persistent rural poverty stands out in the Southeast (Figure 19.22). The rural counties in the region are experiencing higher levels of population loss (13% of rural counties lost population) and low educational attainment (38% of rural counties), with 35% of rural counties experiencing poverty rates of more than 20% persisting over approximately 30 years.10 The Southeast is expected to experience the highest costs associated with meeting increased energy demands; an estimated $3.3 billion each year under a higher scenario (RCP8.5) and $1.2 billion annually under a lower scenario (RCP4.5) by the end of the century.35 Energy poverty is a situation “where individuals or households are not able to adequately heat or provide other required energy services in their homes at affordable cost.”285 A case study from rural eastern North Carolina further explains energy poverty as a function of the energy efficiency of the home, energy provision infrastructure, physical health, low incomes, and support of social networks, which collectively influence households’ choices about the amount of heating and cooling they can afford.286 The National Weather Service (NWS) calculates degree days,287 a way of tracking energy use. NWS starts with the assumption that when the average outside temperature is 65°F, heating or cooling is not needed in order to be comfortable. The difference between the average daily temperature and 65°F is the number of cooling or heating degrees for that day. These days can be added up over time—a month or a year—to give a combined estimate of energy needed for heating or cooling. Although heating costs are expected to decrease as the climate warms in the Southeast, the number of cooling degree days is expected to increase and the length of the cooling season expected to expand, increasing energy demand and exacerbating rural energy poverty (Figure 19.22).
Figure 19.22: Projected Changes in Cooling Degree Days
Figure 19.22: The map shows projected changes in cooling degree days by the mid-21st century (2036–2065) under the higher scenario (RCP8.5) based on model simulations. Rural counties experiencing persistent poverty are concentrated in the Southeast, where the need for additional cooling is expected to increase at higher rates than other areas of the country by mid-century. Sources: NOAA NCEI, CICS-NC, and ERT, Inc.
The ability to cope with current and potential impacts, such as flooding, is further reduced by limited county resources. A study of hazard management plans (2004–2008) in 84 selected rural southeastern counties found these plans scored low across various criteria.288 The rural, geographically remote locations contributed to more difficult logistics in reaching people. Interviewees also identified low-income and minority communities, substandard housing, lack of access to vehicles for evacuation, limited modes of communication, and limited local government capacity as contributing factors to difficulties in emergency planning.288
The healthcare system in the Southeast is already overburdened and may be further stressed by climate change. Between 2010 and 2016, more rural hospitals closed in the Southeast than any other region, with Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee being among the top five states for hospital closures.289 This strain, when combined with negative health impacts from climate change stressors (such as additional patient demand due to extreme heat and vector-borne diseases and greater flood risk from extreme precipitation events), increases the potential for disruptions of health services in the future. The Green River District Health Department recently did an assessment of ways to reduce vulnerability to negative health impacts of climate change in a mostly rural region of western Kentucky.290 As a result, the local health department plans to enhance existing epidemiology, public health preparedness, and community health assessment services.290