North Carolina can be divided into four regions uniquely impacted by climate change: the coast, piedmont, foothills and mountains. Click to jump to each section and learn more about the impacts of climate change in these areas.
The coast of North Carolina is an extremely diverse and important region due to its significance culturally and economically, but also because it is one of the most dynamic ecosystems in the state. It provides unique habitat for marine plants, animals, and insects as well as helps us to better understand complex natural events, such as trends in weather and changing sea levels. These coastal areas also tend to experience the most noticeable changes in climate while tending to have economies deeply connected to the environment such as fisheries and tourism.
Projected sea level rise over time on NC's coast
The changes in temperature both locally and globally can have huge effects on the coast. Local temperature changes can greatly impact the ecology of an area as organisms exposed to temperatures outside of their acceptable ranges will have to either adapt, migrate, or die off. After this the entire system is likely to be different, as other organisms affected by climate change elsewhere will potentially move to these areas completely changing the typical species found there. The temperature data for the coast indicates that there is typically a difference of about 10 degrees Celsius between the coast and the mountains of North Carolina with the coast being hotter. However, during the peak of summer, it is actually the inland portions of the state that get the hottest, slightly exceeding the temperatures on the coast. In line with the trend globally, the coastal data also shows an increase in temperature of around 1 degree Celsius over the last one hundred years, however it also shows a trend of changing faster than inland areas.
In the coastal areas of North Carolina, precipitation rates have remained mostly stable but are projected to increase slightly. The majority of climate models project small increases in annual total precipitation up to about 3% before 2040 . According to the EPA, the amount of precipitation during heavy rainstorms has increased by 27% in the Southeast since 1958, and these rates are projected to continue increasing in the future as climate change continues to affect precipitation. Precipitation is increasing during severe weather events as well. Recently hurricane Florence was calculated to have produced 4.9% more precipitation than it would have without the effects of global warming.
Coastal agriculture is less diverse than other areas due to the dominant type of soil being sandhill soil. This type of soil is dry and nutrient-poor, containing only plants such as turkey oak and longleaf pine that are adapted to such harsh conditions. The few crops that are actually grown on the coast tend to be things like peaches or apples that have deeper tap roots to get through the sandy soil. Most of the agriculture in the state is further inland in what my group determined to be the piedmont, though depending on the map you are looking at it could also be called the coastal plains region. This area is very fertile and has the most diversity in what kinds of crops can be produced.
For the coast of North Carolina, sea level rise is the number one threat of climate change. Globally, sea levels are expected to continue to rise by 1-4 feet by the year 2100, though some studies estimate a rise of almost 8 feet. The east coast and gulf coast of the United States are also projected to experience a sea level rise higher than average, meaning that North Carolina should be prepared for even higher sea levels. As sea levels rise, natural buffers can be eroded away, low-lying areas and communities can be submerged, and current infrastructure not designed to withstand storm surges and floods can be destroyed. This in conjunction with rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns will cause variability in salinity of runoff, lowering water quality and resulting in highly altered and displaced ecosystems. The wetlands that protect the coast from storms, filter runoff, and sequester large amounts of carbon will be destroyed by being submerged or be forced to transition further inland where they will likely be unable to survive due to human development. Sea level rise threatens not only to harm people and infrastructure all along the coast, but also to permanently alter the geography and ecology of these areas.
Many coastal towns are aware of these problems and are enacting plans and researching ways to mitigate the effects of sea level rise. The Town of Nags Head for example, has developed a comprehensive plan for increasing coastal resiliency. The town is continuing to work to implement adaptive actions such as mapping potential damage from storms and sea level rise to better predict the effects and necessary policy changes to avoid as many of the effects as possible.
Overall, the coast of North Carolina is an essential and threatened region of the state. Like the rest of the world, the coast is experiencing upward trends for average temperature, and changes in precipitation patterns. These variations from normal have had and will continue to have detrimental effects on the climate of this region. They work in conjunction with each other compounding their effects and resulting in even bigger problems such as sea level rise and increased storm intensity. In order to address these problems, people must first be made aware of them and understand their importance.
The piedmont region accounts for the towns of Lexington, Asheboro, Franklinville, Siler City, Saxapahaw, Pittsboro, Apex, and Raleigh. This region is located in the middle of the state, in between mountains and the coast. The region holds many prominent and flourishing cities, while having dense and northeastern forest and ecosystems. For this region, data collected from the cities of Raleigh and Greensboro were used for temperature, and precipitation values for the past 30 years. In addition to winter and tropical storm tracking for the entire state, which the region of piedmont was specifically looked at. Some of the values that were looked at were: maximum, minimum, and average temperature and precipitation for each month, of every year since 1990. Storm values included intensity measured by amount of precipitation, coverage of the state, and number of storms.
Weather patterns, and nature are inherently elusive from a day-to-day perspective. Like the life we live, weather seems to eb and flow as nature can be unpredictable. However, with decades of watching the world around us, and creating these data archives one can have a larger view of how nature operates. When looking at this data over the past 30 years collected by the cities in piedmont, we notice:
Maximum and minimum values of recorded temperatures have seemed to have a very slow increase. For example, in the month of October 2020, the average temperature of a day in piedmont in the year 2000, was 50 degrees. In the year 2020, there were 3 days in the 50s, and one in the 40s. All other days were above this average.
Storm Frequency at the beginning and ending of the 30-year period is clear to see via BOTH tropical and winter storm data. With an occurrence of higher frequency in intensity of tropical storms, and a lower frequency and intensity in winter storms.
The foothills region of North Carolina accounts for the towns Mocksville, Statesville, Taylorsville, Lenoir, Lake Lure, Bat Cave, and Hendersonville, among others.
The Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina touching on the foothills have long since been a rich resource for farming. From peaches to tobacco to even Christmas trees, the region is home to a vast array of crops and livelihoods. The foothills themselves are a small subset of the Appalachian mountains connecting the mountains to the piedmont region of the state. They are rich in diversity and a wide variety of crops that are suited to the climate of the region but could be affected by shifts and changes.
The projected climate hazards expected to affect the foothills region is loss- causing flood events, chronic and long-lasting droughts, and periodic high wind, rain, and storm surge from hurricanes and tropical storms that will increase in both frequency and severity that will cause extreme damages and loss.
Using the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI), a measure of social vulnerability to environmental hazards, Emrich and Cutter found that the North Carolina foothills are at
a lesser degree of social vulnerability due to a couple of factors. Western North Carolina can be vulnerable to drought hazards which are exacerbated by a more extreme climate that causes longer dry seasons and more intense periods of heavy precipitation.
The mountain region of North Carolina in the Appalachian Mountains is an incredible place with an incredible natural environment that is threatened by climate change. The ancient mountain chain that runs through western North Carolina provides beautiful landscapes and unique habitats. It has an elevation of between around 2500 ft. and 6,684 ft. at Mount Mitchell, the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi. This elevation changes the climate and the ecosystems found within this region. It is generally colder than the rest of the state due to higher elevations and the way the mountain range protects the rest of the state from colder air blowing in from the North. On average the mountain region is about 10* colder than the central part of the state in the winter and has highs about 20* lower in the summer. The mountains also affect the rainfall patterns contributing to the variety of habitats. The mountain region includes the southwestern region where it rains 90 inches a year on average making it the rainiest part of the eastern US and the valley of the French Broad River that is the driest part of the state with only 37 inches of rain in an average year.
Increased precipitation that could cause landslides and erosion
An increase in flooding and runoff due to extreme precipitation
An increase in wild fires due to an increase in the number and severity of droughts
Heatwaves and an increased number of days with extreme heat
The mountain region of North Carolina in the Appalachian Mountains is an incredible place with an incredible natural environment that is threatened by climate change. The ancient mountain chain that runs through western North Carolina provides beautiful landscapes and unique habitats. It has an elevation of between around 2500 ft. and 6,684 ft. at Mount Mitchell, the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi. This elevation changes the climate and the ecosystems found within this region. It is generally colder than the rest of the state due to higher elevations and the way the mountain range protects the rest of the state from colder air blowing in from the North. On average the mountain region is about 10* colder than the central part of the state in the winter and has highs about 20* lower in the summer. The mountains also This geography helps shape the beautiful natural environment that provides many interesting and important habitats. Many unique forests dominate the landscape including high elevation spruce-fir, oak, northern hardwood, floodplain, dry coniferous, and cove forests. There are also many other important habitats including bogs, fens, mountain streams, rivers, caves, mines, cliffs, and rock outcroppings. While some of these forests have been logged, developed into farmland or developed areas many of them are still intact and are incredibly important for the mountain region of North Carolina.
The forests give ecosystem services ranging from carbon sequestration and purifying the states headwaters to providing money through tourism and forestry products. Highlights for tourists looking to appreciate the natural beauty include the Appalachian trail, Blue Ridge parkway, Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the highest point Mt. Mitchell State Park, and so much more. Tourism from both the natural beauty and the numerous other attractions is the largest industry in the region providing $3 billion in 2017 and employing 30,000 people. Some other important industries that are tied to the environment and climate in the region are forestry and agriculture. The major agricultural products were trout, Christmas trees, turfgrass, lumber, apples, greenhouse and nursery crops. Forestry in the region is also another important industry for both the state and region,it provided $33.6 billion dollars to the economy and 150,400 jobs in 2020. These industries rely on the climate of North Carolina and could be hurt as the climate changes.
Considering how climate change will affect the mountain region of North Carolina in particular it is important to look at the potential weather changes predicted based on the models and how this could affect the environment and people. Historical data shows some of the changes that have already occurred in the region through tracking weather data. For example, the National Weather Service has detailed climate data from Asheville that starts in 1869. This data shows an overall increase of average annual temperature. It also shows an increase in extreme temperature, for example 5 of the top 10 warmest years and 2 of the top 10 warmest days were within the last 10 years out of the 151 years that are recorded. Additionally, none of the coldest years, months, or days are after 1985. The changes in precipitation are a little more variable but there has been some disruption. The North Carolina Office produced maps showing the changes in precipitation from 1901 to 2007 in the South Eastern US. These show an increase in precipitation during the fall and a decrease in precipitation during the winter, spring, and summer with the decrease being the most severe in the summer especially in the Northern part of Western North Carolina. There also may be an increase in extreme weather events like storms as that is predicted as an effect of climate change, for example the third highest single day of rainfall was in April 2019. Climate change will also affect many of the animals living there that may not be able to survive the increased heat stress. This is a big concern for species that typically live further north but thrive in the colder higher elevations and could be further isolated at higher and higher elevations until they go extinct.
The city of Asheville created a report on climate resilience that provides a good look at how the region can better plan for climate change. In the report they identified ways climate change could impact their city, how other factors may compound these effects, and how they can address these effects. The threats they found were major flooding, nuisance flooding, landslides, droughts, wildfires, extreme heat events, and supply chain disruptions. It also identified populations, areas, and even specific structures that were at risk in the near future. It also examines ways to address these problems including hazard mitigation and emergency response, further analysis, city ordinances and design standards for construction, infrastructure projects, outreach programs, protecting natural areas and addressing supply chain issues.