Climate change in our backyards:  the Northeast


Climate change impacts are already discernible in the US Northeast region, and are expected to worsen over time.  The Northeast is projected to face continued warming and more extensive climate-related changes, some of which could dramatically alter the region’s economy, landscape, character, and quality of life. “Climate change is happening now, in our own backyards…. It affects all of us and the things we care about,”  said climate scientist and NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco at a June 16 press briefing announcing the Obama administration’s release of the scientific assessment report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States.  This is the second in a series of CSW posts that will draw salient points from the report’s chapters, covering geographic regions and socioeconomic sectors, and will discuss some of the implications of the findings, primarily in terms of US planning and preparedness for a wide range of climate change consequences.

See our earlier post:  “Global Climate Change Impacts in the US”—Report Overview (Part 1 of a series)

This post focuses on the northeastern region of the US; the other eight regions covered in the report are the Southeast, Midwest, Great Plains, Southwest, Northwest, Alaska, Islands, and Coasts.  The seven sectors addressed in the report are:  Water Resources, Energy Supply and Use, Transportation, Agriculture, Ecosystems, Human Health, and Society.

Source:  Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States.  See the full, very-accessibly-written report for a more extensive discussion, including a substantial complement of graphics.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has assembled a useful set of backgrounders for this report that we have also drawn upon. Click here for the UCS backgrounder on the Northeast.

Climate change impacts in the US Northeast *

Climate change impacts are already discernible, and are expected to worsen over time:  the Northeast is projected to face continued warming and more extensive climate-related changes, some of which could dramatically alter the region’s economy, landscape, character, and quality of life.  Moreover, If current emission trends continue, mid-century and beyond could bring much shorter winters with fewer cold days and more precipitation, a halving in the length of the winter snow season across northern New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, and a reduction of the snow season to a week or two in southern parts of the region.  Under a higher emissions scenario, “by late this century, residents of New Hampshire would experience a summer climate more like what occurs today in North Carolina.”

Temperature Increases

•  “Since 1970, the annual average temperature in the Northeast has increased by 2°F, with winter temperatures rising twice this much.”

•  “Over the next several decades, temperatures in the Northeast are expected to rise an additional 2.5 – 4° F in winter, and 1.5 – 3.5° F in summer.”

•  There are more frequent days with temperatures above 90° F, and projected for later this century, more frequent days with Ts above 100° F.

o “Cities that now experience few days above 100° F each summer would average 20 such days per summer.”

o “Cities such as Hartford and Philadelphia, would average nearly 30 days over 100° F.”

o “Extreme heat and declining air quality are likely to pose increasing problems for human health, especially in densely populated urban areas.”

• Rising water temperatures represent a serious threat to fisheries and natural fish populations.

o Lobster fisheries have been migrating northward, while “lobster catches in the southern part of the region peaked in the mid-1990s, and have since declined sharply” in part due to a temperature-sensitive bacterial shell disease.  Cod populations are also temperature-sensitive; “increases in average annual sea bottom temperatures above 47°F will lead to a decline in growth and survival.”

o “Over half of the wild trout populations are likely to disappear from the southern Appalachian Mountains because of the effects of warming stream temperatures.”

Precipitation:  Droughts and Flooding

•  Precipitation intensity is projected to increase everywhere, but droughts will also become more frequent and widespread.

•  Short term (1-3 month) droughts “are projected to occur as frequently as once each summer in the Catskill and Adirondack mountains, and across the New England states.”

•  When it does rain, it rains heavier than before:

o   Heavy downpours can overload drainage systems and water treatment facilities, increasing the risk of water-borne diseases. Downpours can trigger sewage overflows, contaminating drinking water and heavy rains can lead to flooding, which can cause health impacts including direct injuries as well as increased incidence of water-borne diseases due to bacteria.

o Cities and towns that have older “combined sewer systems” (that carry storm water and sewage in the same pipes) such as New York, Washington DC, and Philadelphia, are at risk of overflowing and raw sewage spills into lakes or waterways, including where people swim, contaminating drinking water supplies with disease-causing bacteria.  (In 2004, the EPA estimated it would cost $203 B to address these and other needs of publicly-owned wastewater treatment systems.

•  In winter, there is less snow, more rain, and less snowpack.

•  “Under a higher emissions scenario, the typical 100-year flood is projected to occur at least twice as often by mid-century, and 10 times as often (or once per decade on average) by late this century.”

Sea Level Rise, Storm Surges, and Coastal Flooding

•  Most of the big cities in the Northeast are on coasts, rivers, or both.

•  Sea level in the Northeast is projected to rise about 2 feet, with the potential for a much larger rise.  Recent estimates of global sea-level rise projected within the century are 3 – 4 feet, but even a 2-foot rise in relative sea level over a century would result in the loss of a large portion of the nation’s remaining coastal wetlands.

•  SLR “leads to substantial increases in the extent and frequency of storm surge, coastal flooding, erosion, property damage, and loss of wetlands.”  It “adversely affects seagrasses, coral reefs, and other important ecosystems and habitats;” …it “fragments barrier islands, and places into jeopardy existing homes, businesses, and infrastructure, including roads, ports, and water and sewage systems.”
“Low-lying and subsiding areas are most vulnerable.”

•  “The greatest damage occurs when sea-level rise, heavy runoff, high tides, and storms coincide.”

•  “Severe flooding due to sea-level rise and heavy downpours is likely to occur more frequently.”  Portions of major cities, including Boston and New York, would be subject to inundation by ocean water during storm surges or even during regular high tides.

•  Much of the coastline is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of rising sea levels, with implications for the public’s ability to insure property: Homeowner’s insurance is getting more expensive and more difficult to obtain.  For example, in New York, with over $2 trillion in insured coastal property, “some major insurers have withdrawn coverage from thousands of homeowners in coastal areas of the Northeast, including New York City.”

•  The combined effects of sea-level rise and storm surge are projected to dramatically increase the frequency of flooding; what is currently called a 100-year storm is projected to occur as often as every 5 years.

o “Portions of lower Manhattan and coastal areas of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and Nassau County, would experience a marked increase in flooding frequency.”

o   “Much of the critical transportation infrastructure, including tunnels, subways, and airports, lies well within the range of projected storm surge and would be flooded during such events.”

Altered Seasons

•  The growing season is longer (but agriculture and the thriving dairy industry is threatened)

•  Breakup of winter ice on lakes and rivers occurs earlier in the year

•  Climate projections indicate earlier spring snowmelt and spring runoff by as much as 14 days.  Earlier runoff produces lower late-summer streamflows which stress human and environmental systems through less water availability and higher water temperatures.

•  One huge potential casualty of an altered New England winter season is the impact it will have on winter recreation:  winter snow and ice sports are a $7.6 billion/yr industry in this regional economy (alpine skiing and other snow sports account for $4.6 B, snowmobiling for the other $3 B).  Ice skating and fishing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and dog sledding (all integral to the character of the Northeast) will also be adversely affected with a shorter, warmer winter season, and will drive up costs as recreation areas will boost artificial snowmaking.

•  Spring now arrives an average of 10 days to two weeks earlier than it did 20 years ago, altering when plants bud in spring, and when birds and other animals migrate. Many migratory bird species are
arriving earlier. Some mountain tree species have shifted uphill by 350 feet in the last 40 years.  Cold-loving tree species have declined from 43 to 18 percent, while warmer-loving trees increase
from 57 to 82 percent. The composition of high-elevation forests is changing rapidly.

Effects on Agriculture

•  Agricultural production, including dairy (the largest agricultural sector in the NE with an annual production worth $3.6 billion), fruit, and maple syrup, are likely to be adversely affected as favorable climates shift.

•  Under a higher emissions scenario, “much of the Northeast is likely to become unsuitable for growing popular varieties of apples, blueberries, and cranberries.”  “Fruits that require long winter chilling periods [many cumulative hours below 45ºF] will likely experience declines.”

•  “Climate conditions suitable for map/beech/birch forests are projected to shift dramatically northward, eventually leaving only a small portion of the Northeast with a viable maple sugar business.”

•  Heat stress and other factors could cause a decline in milk production of up to 20 percent or higher in parts of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.  Under a higher emissions scenario, late this century, “all but the northern parts of Maine, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont are projected to suffer declines in July milk production.”

Effects on Transportation

•  While warmer winters will reduce the need for snow and ice removal, and for salt and chemicals on roads and bridges, extend the construction season, and improve the mobility and safety of passenger and freight travel through reduced winter hazards, the downside is that “freeze-thaw conditions are likely to increase, creating frost heaves and potholes on road and bridge surfaces and resulting in load restrictions on certain roads to minimize the damage.”

Issues for Planning and Preparedness in Northeastern states

Most of the states in the Northeastern US have developed some sort of “climate change action plan” that addresses ways the state can take steps to reduce GHG emissions, only a few talk about adaptation (e.g. Maryland has thoroughly considered adaptation measures.)

Links for each Northeastern state’s primary website for climate change appears below (most obtained from the Center for Climate Strategies website.)  A separate, sister post will provide examples of steps being taken to effectively plan and prepare for climate change impacts, and identify areas where much more attention needs to be focused in order to reduce vulnerability and risk, and build in additional resiliency to climate disruption.





New Hampshire

New Jersey

New York


Rhode Island


West Virginia (Governor’s page on environment).  There is no climate change action plan for WV.

(Instead, they blow up mountains and arrest climate scientists, see recent posts:  here, and here.)

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*  CSW has clung very closely to the text of the report, exercising very little paraphrasing, predominantly lifting exact quotes from the report (in quotation marks) and rearranging and consolidating ideas to afford a succinct summary of impacts and longer term consequences presented in this chapter.

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