‘We have run out of road’

Heat, weather impacts of climate change will be felt across industries, communities

By Sydney Cromwell

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series about how climate change will affect Alabama. To read the first part of the series, click here.

The signs of climate change are being measured all around the globe. That includes Alabama.

It’s a subject of national and international attention, and it’s expected to get worse. Yet, only about 63% of Alabamians believe that climate change is happening, and even fewer believe humans are the primary cause, according to the Yale 2020 Climate Opinion survey.

Roughly 37% of Alabama residents believe climate change will affect them personally.

  • A map of the southeast, divided into counties, with the percentage of adults in each county who are worried about global warming.
  • A map of the southeast, divided into counties, with the percentage of adults in each county who believe global warming is mostly caused by human activity.

The first half of our climate change series focused on climate science and modeling, and what researchers are predicting for Alabama and the Southeast. Now, let’s talk about the changes in daily life that we could see with just a couple degrees of warming.

SWEATING IT OUT

Alabama — along with much of the Southeast — is not seeing the drastic levels of warming measured in other places around the country (Again, if you haven’t read our first climate change article, that’s the best place to start). However, the state has been getting warmer over the past 50 years, and it is likely to continue that trend.

Alabama is expected to see annual average temperatures that match or surpass the highest temperatures in its historical record, dating back to 1895. Mild winters may sound appealing, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is predicting that summer high temperatures above 95° — and even above 100° — will become more common here.

Rising temperatures will be amplified in Alabama’s cities by the “urban heat island” effect, where dense buildings and roads trap and radiate heat, but the 2018 National Climate Assessment expects heat to be a health concern all across the state.

“There’s a lot of vulnerability in the Southeast with heat as it is, and these things are going to get worse and worse,” said Charles Konrad, the director of NOAA’s Southeast Regional Climate Center (SERCC).

Heat stroke, heat exhaustion and other health complications are the top weather-related cause of death in the United States. In addition to his work with the SERCC, Konrad has studied climate change’s connection to heat-related illnesses.

In a 2015 study, he found that, surprisingly, heat illnesses were most likely to cause emergency room visits not on absolute peak temperature days, but on more “ordinary” hot days. One likely reason, according to the study, is that people will take precautions during attention-getting heat waves, but are less likely to do so when temperatures seem normal, even if the heat is still dangerous.

A higher average summer temperature could cause people to adjust to a new “normal,” exposing them to heat risks.

“There’s a lot of vulnerability in the Southeast with heat as it is, and these things are going to get worse and worse.”

Charles Konrad, Southeast Regional Climate Center

Konrad’s research has also shown a connection between heat waves and increased emergency room visits for some heart, lung and nervous system diseases, as well as diabetes. Other studies have found that heat causes more harm in those with pre-existing health conditions.

Poor communities in Alabama already have a higher rate of chronic conditions, according to Jefferson County’s 2018 Community Health Equity Report, and — particularly in rural areas — less access to medical care. The brunt of heat-related illnesses will likely fall on Alabama’s impoverished and elderly populations.

Heat is already a familiar risk in Alabama for outdoor activities and industries like construction, waste and agriculture. But as the thermometer creeps upward in the coming decades, those workers will feel the difference.

Billy Norrell, the CEO of Alabama Associated General Contractors, said the state’s relatively short, mild winters are good for construction, but hot summer weather comes with the territory.

“It’s hot from April to Halloween, just about, and that’s just the way it is,” he said. “… We try to get our folks prepared for the hot season. Summer is brutal for exterior construction, road construction.”

Adam Terando, U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist at the Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center, said the potential risks to worker safety and productivity loss may incentivize industries to shift working hours earlier or later in the day to avoid peak midday heat, and to provide shade, water, and other ways to beat the heat.

Russell Wood, the executive director of the Alabama Nursery and Landscape Association (ALNLA), said this is already the case for many landscapers.

“Traditionally, we start work early. Most landscape companies are up and rolling at 6 a.m.,” Wood said.

In his time at the ALNLA, Wood said he has seen more companies providing education for their employees about heat illnesses and treatment.

Norrell has also seen more efforts in the construction industry to keep workers “educated and safe” in the heat.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been charged with coming up with a national set of regulations to protect workers from unsafe heat conditions, both indoors and outdoors.

“When they’re incentivized economically to keep working just as hard, … they’re not going to slow down when it gets hotter,” Konrad said.

A tractor drives across a dirt field with tilling equipment, raising a plume of dust.
Farming in Monroe County, Alabama. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

FROM FARM — OR BOAT — TO TABLE

Aside from the health impacts on Alabama’s 6,700 citizens working outdoors in various farming, fishing and logging jobs, changing heat and weather patterns will affect crops and livestock, too.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and NOAA, intensifying heat and drought conditions will affect the growth of corn, cotton and soybeans, three major crops for this state. With more heat and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, plants need additional water and nutrients.

The EPA also said that plants like soybeans, wheat and rice become less nutritious when exposed to more carbon dioxide, as they lose protein and minerals.

Peaches, a Chilton County staple, require exposure to the right amount of cold weather, as well as warming temperatures at the right time, in order to grow.

Drought conditions, with heat pulling moisture out of the soil, can cause crop loss or extra irrigation expenses. Michigan State University estimates that a 1,000-acre farm requires about $7,000 in weekly energy costs during a drought.

“During droughts, yeah, Alabama farmers get hit really hard,” Birmingham-Southern biology professor and conservation researcher Scot Duncan said.

Farms that rely on rainfall rather than irrigation may avoid those expenses, but they’re vulnerable to unpredictable conditions. Heavy rainfalls, another side effect of climate change, can also cause damage and crop loss, as can pests, weeds and diseases that thrive in warmth.

Much of farms’ vulnerability to climate change will depend on what they’re growing. Among common Alabama crops, soybeans and corn need a lot of water, while cotton and peanuts are more drought tolerant, according to Carla Hornady, the Alabama Farmers Federation (ALFA) divisions director for cotton, soybeans and wheat and feed grains.

“In dry years, we don’t have as much corn,” Hornady said.

During 2016, a drought year, she said the statewide corn yields were below average, while peanut crops were above average. In 2020, an unusually wet year, corn yields were high.

The variability of both weather and the market leads many farmers to rotate crops, Hornady said. If a disaster like a late-season hurricane strikes, wiping out an entire harvest, the blow is softened if a farm has other crops to rely on.

“If one commodity price goes low, then they have something else,” Hornady said. “… They’ve learned to diversify.”

Much like humans, livestock suffer from heat stress, leading to illness and even deaths, or the extra expense of using equipment like misters to keep animals cool.

“Dairy cattle do not produce as well as they would when under heat stress,” said Russ Durrance, ALFA’s dairy, pork and poultry divisions director. “… We have to work hard to keep those animals cool. Shade in pastures is obviously very important.”

Durrance said chickens are often raised indoors to better control temperature and other factors.

He noted that when it comes to adaptation, farmers are seasoned experts.

“Changing and adapting to what’s been going on — that’s something that our farmers have been doing for many, many years,” Durrance said.

A row of fishing boats in a harbor.
Fishing boats in Bayou La Batre. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On the Gulf Coast, Alabama’s seafood industry will feel the heat just like farmers. Oysters, grouper and other seafood species are already in population decline, partly caused by oceans becoming warmer, more acidic and less oxygenated. Coral reefs, which house a number of species that we consume, are also victims of warmer seas.

The 2018 National Climate Assessment predicts Gulf Coast oyster harvests will decline by anywhere from 20% to 46% by 2100. And, in turn, oyster prices will go up — an estimated 48% to 140%.

Since most grocery stores stock food from around the country and the world, even weather conditions far from Alabama can have ripple effects here. If climate change causes losses hundreds of miles away — fruit and nuts from California, sugar from southeast Asia, crabs from Maine — shortages or price hikes might follow.

An aerial photo of Lake Purdy, showing very little water remaining. Most of the dry lake bed is visible.
Lake Purdy, a major drinking water source for the Birmingham area, during the 2016 drought. Photo by Ron Burkett for the Hoover Sun.

POWER AND WATER

On an average day, we don’t have to think twice about turning on the tap. But the hotter, drier conditions predicted for the Southeast could change that.

Lakes, rivers, aquifers and other drinking water sources could see water levels decline as heat causes more evaporation. Continued population growth will also keep demand high. A 2019 study predicted that half of the United States’ freshwater basins won’t be able to meet regular water demand by 2071.

Groundwater supplies have decreased across the country over the last 100 years, according to the National Climate Assessment.

During drought conditions, the Columbia Climate School says areas like the South and the Caribbean will particularly feel these shortages.

“Drought and water shortages naturally happen from time to time in the Southeast, and all the climate models show that we will see more of that,” Duncan said.

The last major dry season in Alabama was in 2016, when nearly the entire state was in “severe drought” conditions, and some places set new records of more than 60 days without rain. Other recent drought periods included 2011–2013, 2007–2008 and 2000, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

A chart of droughts from 2000 to present, with dry conditions represented by colors ranging from yellow to dark red. Especially severe droughts are shown in 2016, 2011–2013, 2007–2008 and 2000.
Recent droughts in Alabama since 2000, with darker colors representing more severe dry conditions. Courtesy of the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Will we have water supply problems? “Well, it depends on how we behave,” Duncan said.

Water conservation, by both utility companies and consumers, will become increasingly important during dry seasons. The Birmingham Water Works Board declined a request to talk about climate change and drought preparedness, and the Montgomery Water Works Board did not respond.

Mobile Area Water & Sewer System Public Relations Manager Monica Allen said the Mobile system has never had an issue with water shortages that she’s aware of.

“The best way to go, the cheapest and easiest way to make sure we have enough water is to carefully use the water that we have,” Duncan said.

The heat also has researchers predicting that the United States as a whole will spend more money on another summer staple: air conditioning.

Americans already spend about $29 billion each year on cooling their homes. The growing popularity of air conditioning is causing more energy demand around the world. The National Climate Assessment estimates Alabamians could see energy costs go up 10-15% before the end of the century, and the entire Southeast could see between $1.2 billion and $3.3 billion in additional energy demand.

As with heat waves, any increase in the cost of power or water bills will hit hardest on the more than 760,000 Alabama residents that are living in poverty, according to Alabama Possible.

According to power companies, Alabama’s familiarity with the dog days of summer gives it some protection from rising utility costs, at least compared to the rest of the country. Cullman Electric Cooperative, for instance, has to provide more energy to its 36,000 members in winter than in summer, Brian Lacy, the manager of communications and external affairs, said.

“We are a winter-peaking system, which means we use, each year, our absolute most electricity during the winter months,” Lacy said.

“Because we’re in the South, we don’t like cold weather.” he added.

The trend toward energy efficiency in heating and air conditioning systems, as well as other home appliances, has helped to reduce the energy demand, Lacy said.

“We probably have more things plugged into our homes than ever before, … but we’re not seeing an increase in the amount of electricity that’s being used, and that’s directly attributable to the energy efficiency trend,” he said.

Decatur Utilities has seen declining electricity use due to energy efficiency, as well, Communications and Public Relations Coordinator Joe Holmes said. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) — the power generator for Cullman, Decatur and a number of other Alabama electricity providers — is also expecting energy demand to stay level or decline, according to spokesperson Scott Fiedler.

Alabama Power declined to be interviewed.

Several power trucks are stopped on the side of a two-lane, rural road. Two workers can be seen working near a power pole, while another worker stands near one of the trucks.
Line crews restore power in Alabama after Hurricane Sally (2020). Courtesy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Severe storms, on the other hand, are always a cause for concern.

“The thing that we seem to be noticing — so it’s kind of unscientific here, but it certainly seems like the biggest impact of climate change on us will be the frequency of bad weather,” Lacy said.

He said the operations team at Cullman Electric is having to deal with severe weather outages and repairs more frequently.

“Those are really, really tough on electric companies,” Lacy said.

While Cullman Electric does emergency planning and has improved its systems to spot outages faster, sometimes it comes down to having enough manpower. Lacy said they have mutual aid agreements with other electric cooperatives around the region to send workers where they’re needed.

“Really, the key to getting it fixed is you just need workers,” he said.

More intense storms will mean more demand on that mutual aid system, and the infrastructure that provides our power. According to NOAA, last year there were 22 weather events across the U.S. that caused more than $1 billion in damages — a record high.

Hurricane Ida, which made U.S. landfall at the end of August, left over a million people without power in Louisiana alone, not to mention power outages and billions of dollars in damages through the hurricane’s path across the Southeast and East Coast. More than a month later, Louisiana power provider Entergy was still working to restore power to some of its customers.

An infrastructure disaster of a different kind hit Texas this past February, when an unprecedented winter storm left many millions without power and exposed flaws in the state’s power grid.

It may seem counterintuitive to include winter storms in a conversation about a warming planet, but the two are actually linked. The melting of ice in the Arctic is changing the patterns of jet streams and air flow around the world, bringing cold air to unexpected places.

The future of climate change includes extreme ice and snow as well as droughts and heat waves.

A BRIDGE OVER FLOODED WATERS

Besides power and water, other daily infrastructure like roads, rail lines, ports and dams are also vulnerable to extreme weather.

Natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes already cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, and the IPCC projects that those storms will get more intense in the future due to warming air and sea temperatures. Some researchers also believe hurricanes are developing that intensity more quickly, leaving less time for the people in their paths to prepare or evacuate.

On the Gulf Coast, sea levels have risen an estimated 1.5 inches per decade, according to NOAA, and they’re expected to rise by at least a foot by 2050.

Waterfront buildings and roads, such as the low-lying causeway to Dauphin Island, are at risk of being flooded and damaged or closed by high tides or storm surges. The National Climate Assessment reports that Southeastern coastal cities are experiencing 5 to 10 times more high-tide flooding now than in the 1960s.

Photo is taken from the road that connects Dauphin Island to mainland Alabama. The Gulf waters can be seen just a few feet from the edge of the road, and the water level is barely lower than the ground the road is built on. In the background, the elevated portion of the causeway, including the bridge to allow ship traffic, can be seen.
The Dauphin Island causeway. Courtesy of Jeffrey Reed, Wikimedia Commons.

Terando said 500-year or 1,000-year flooding levels could become once-a-decade floods. Charleston, South Carolina, is one example where flooding is notably worsening.

“If it’s a high tide level, you will see water in the streets, even if it hasn’t rained in days, because they’re starting to get these tidal flooding events because the seas are rising,” Terando said.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Transportation projected that 5-13% of Mobile’s roads and roughly 70-90% of its ports could be totally flooded by 2100, depending on the rate of sea level rise.

That sea level rise will change the beaches and affect tourist industries. It also means people living and working further inland along Mobile Bay and Mobile River may face new risks, like tropical storm surges, tidal floods and erosion, that they have not been accustomed to.

Away from the shore, intense storm flooding can wash out, block or otherwise damage road and rail lines. The National Climate Assessment says heavy rainfall also puts pressure on bridges and dams, especially those that are already damaged or aging.

“Across the Southeast since 2014, there have been numerous examples of intense rainfall events — many approaching levels that would be expected to occur only once every 500 years,” the National Climate Assessment reported. These included the April 2014 tornadoes in Alabama and several other states.

In cities, even minor rainstorms can lead to flash flooding because the stormwater can’t be absorbed by concrete and asphalt, instead backing up overburdened stormwater drains.

“There are some communities that feel helpless, for lack of a better word. They feel like they don’t have the capacity.”

Tracie Sempier, Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium

The Insurance Institute for Building & Home Safety ranked Alabama’s building codes and enforcement as “Poor” in its 2021 Rating the States list for hurricane safety, in part because of the lack of a statewide set of building codes. Alabama is also the only state without a dam inspection program.

Tracie Sempier, the coastal storms outreach coordinator for the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium (MASGC), assists cities and towns with building “community resilience” to storms, sea level rise and other climate issues.

A major part of that resilience, Sempier said, is finding where a town’s infrastructure, businesses and population are vulnerable to problems like hurricanes or sea level rise, then creating a hazard mitigation plan to respond.

“I try not to be on the doomsday side of it. I try to go in with solutions, or at least examples of what we can do about it,” she said.

Planning for the future can be an easy, concrete place to start for communities that aren’t sure how to approach climate change — or don’t have the budget for major overhauls.

“We have a lot of smaller-size communities in Mississippi and Alabama, so the likelihood that they’re going to have the dollar funds to totally redo their infrastructure … is just probably pretty low,” Sempier said.

Aside from funding, she said cities sometimes struggle with having enough staff for long-term, major planning projects — “it feels insurmountable.” Sempier said she hopes that most Alabama coastal towns that aren’t planning for the effects of climate change are just overwhelmed, not resistant to the idea.

“There are some communities that feel helpless, for lack of a better word. They feel like they don’t have the capacity,” she said.

Along with the nitty-gritty details of creating hazard mitigation plans, Sempier said the MASGC’s role is also about building trust in communities, so they see that climate change preparation can be done without making fundamental changes to the community — and that it’s important.

She had one building official tell her that observing sea level rise is like watching paint dry.

“That makes the effects and the impacts of these things a challenge to communicate,” she said.

Sempier said she usually doesn’t see much climate change denial from local governments, though it does occasionally pop up in public meetings.

“I think when we talk about climate change in general, it’s very nebulous and I don’t think it’s well-understood, and I think that has a negative connotation for a lot of people,” she said.

WHAT ELSE MIGHT CLIMATE CHANGE DO?

As if changes to weather, health, food, utilities and infrastructure weren’t enough, there’s a grab-bag of other problems that climate researchers are predicting.

Air quality is likely to get worse, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Ozone levels in the air tend to increase with temperature, which is a health risk for people with asthma or other respiratory conditions.

The National Climate Assessment says the Southeast, particularly its cities, already experiences more days with “stagnant air masses” — when air pollutants build up in one place due to lack of wind — than the rest of the country.

The warm climate will make friendly conditions for some water-borne pathogens and for mosquitoes, which can carry diseases like dengue and Zika virus.

In the background, burning trees and a heavy smoke cloud can be seen. In front of the burning trees is a charred area where the controlled burn has already passed. In the foreground is a green area that was not part of the controlled burn, where plants are still living.
A controlled burn in Barbour County, Alabama. Courtesy of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Flickr page.

Controlled burns, which prevent wildfires and encourage the health of forests like Alabama’s longleaf pines, become harder to schedule because of weather variability. Terando said heat waves and other weather changes, particularly in the spring and fall, can make it hard to schedule burns in conditions that are safe for the crews.

Drought conditions increase the risk of wildfires, making regular controlled burns all the more important in a hotter Alabama.

Scientists are also noticing the gradual northward migration of plant and animal species, chasing their ideal environments as the planet warms. This could lead to the introduction of new invasive species to Alabama, and the loss of some of its historical ecosystems.

“Nobody sets out to cause species to go extinct or rivers to dry up,” Duncan said. “… It’s really just the consequence of individuals, businesses and governments doing what they think is best over the past 400 years.”

Chris Blankenship, the commissioner of conservation for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), said sea level rise is pushing marsh grasses on the coast further inland, encroaching into the neighboring pine tree ecosystems. He said the state is noticing animals like pythons and tegus (a lizard from Central and South America) are able to thrive after human introduction.

 “We’re seeing some of those grab a foothold in our state, and we’re working to be proactive to ban the breeding of those and the sale of those in our state,” Blankenship said.

And, he’s heard of fishers occasionally catching snook, a species not native to the Alabama coast, in the past few years.

“Maybe they are moving into our waters, that’s maybe a better habitat than it was previously,” Blankenship said.

Sempier said she thinks people will start to notice the little ways that climate change can be felt: flooded roads on their daily commutes, stormwater building up and causing damage more frequently, more mosquitoes and — of course — more hot days.

“I think for most people it’s not going to be this big, dramatic effect, right? I think it’s going to be these small things that start catching people’s attention,” Sempier said.

The limits and possibilities of local government

Many of the decisions about emissions and industry regulation are made at the federal and international levels, but Terando said municipal and state governments can also play a role in curbing climate change.

Transportation is one of the largest sources of emissions, and Terando said cities and counties can make decisions that encourage more climate-friendly transportation options.

“That’s a level of government that I think is probably more responsible for the amount of emissions going into the atmosphere right now than the federal level,” he said.

Local governments also have a central role in protecting local air quality, managing stormwater, setting building codes, repairing infrastructure and preparing for the future.

“If people want to make sure that their community is responding to and working to adapt to these changes that are happening now and that are coming in the future, again, at that local level can be a really effective way to make sure that’s happening,” Terando said.

Sempier said the municipal leaders she meets with are often influenced by the opinions of their residents when deciding their priorities.

“Our city leaders need support. They need those voices to help them justify spending the money on some of these projects,” she said. “… If they take a step and see that the comm is supporting them and then they take another step, I feel like we’re going to get there in the long run.”

“We have run out of road. We have procrastinated too much. It is the night before the final exam and we have not been studying.”

Scot Duncan, Birmingham-Southern College

Sempier said she’s encouraged by communities who show an interest in taking even small steps, and she hopes other towns will follow.

For example, she said MASGC has funded some research with Auburn University on heat and runoff issues in Mobile. Gulf Shores held a series of workshops on saltwater intrusion. Fairhope has redesigned its marina to better handle sea level rise and stormwater.

And Dauphin Island, she said, has recognized that “things can’t be the way they are much longer” for homes and roads on the tiny barrier island. Sempier said assessments and plans are being made for restoration and protection, especially on the island’s west end.

“They have embraced finding ways to make things better. They may not be giant steps, but they are steps in the right direction.”

However, Duncan says more urgency is needed from citizens and officials if we’re going to prevent the worst-case scenarios.

“We have run out of road. We have procrastinated too much. It is the night before the final exam and we have not been studying,” Duncan said. “… If I could wave a magic wand, that’s what we would all be focusing on.”

Main article image of Gulf State Park courtesy of Jodybwiki, Wikimedia Commons.

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