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Diving Deeper: Episode 28 (November 4, 2010) - Preparing for Climate-Related Impacts

HOST: Welcome to Diving Deeper where we interview National Ocean Service scientists on the ocean topics and information that are important to you! I’m your host Kate Nielsen.

Today’s question is….How can we prepare for climate-related impacts?

The NOAA Coastal Services Center is one office in NOAA that produces a variety of tools to help communities prepare for and respond to the impacts of climate variability and climate change.

To help us dive a little deeper into this question, we will talk with Stephanie Fauver by phone on how best to prepare for climate impacts. Stephanie is a meteorologist with the NOAA Coastal Services Center. Hi Stephanie, welcome to our show.

STEPHANIE FAUVER: Hi Kate, thank you for inviting to talk to your listeners today.  

HOST: Stephanie, first, can you explain to us what the difference is between climate and weather?
STEPHANIE FAUVER: Sure Kate. There is still a lot of confusion between climate and weather. Often, you’ll hear people say “climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.” What that really means is the weather is what you see outside on any particular day. It may be 85 degrees and sunny or it could be 30 degrees and snowing. That’s the weather.

Climate is the average weather for a certain period of time at a certain location. An example might be that you can expect snow in the Northeast in January and that’s their climate. Also, it’s hot and humid in the Southeast in July. That’s their climate. The climate record also includes extreme values such as record high temperatures or record amounts of rainfall. You may hear the local TV meteorologists or the National Weather Service meteorologists talk about “today we hit a record high for this day.” Those are climate records.

Climate can vary over time, and these extreme values are the climate variability part of the equation. 

HOST: Thanks Stephanie, I like that. Climate is what you expect and weather is what you get. That sort of sums it all up right there. You just mentioned climate variability. What is that and how is it different from climate change?

STEPHANIE FAUVER: We know now that climate is average weather, but we’re not always average. Sometimes we’re higher, sometimes we’re lower than average. These shorter term changes in climate are climate variability. We could see a period of drought or a period of flooding. These are climate variability. Generally, climate variability is on the order of weeks to months to even years.

This is in contrast to climate change. Climate change is a long-term trend on the order of decades to centuries. You can’t just look out your window and see sea level rise, sea level rise happens for tens to hundreds of years. Climate change is a longer term trend.

HOST: OK, so when we’re talking long-term trends, that’s climate change, and then short periods of time that’s climate variability. Stephanie, do you have any examples of where we’re seeing impacts from a changing climate already?
STEPHANIE FAUVER: Kate, we are seeing impacts already. Shorter ice seasons in the Great Lakes and in the Arctic Ocean are already being seen. In North Carolina, we’re seeing damage from rising water levels causing problems to coastal lowlands. We’re also seeing changes in the ranges of tree and animals species due to climate change. For example, we have seen butterflies further north and in higher elevations than in the past and they’re also becoming extinct in southern and warmer locations. In addition, spring now arrives an average of 10 to 14 days earlier than it did 20 years ago.

HOST: What other impacts are expected from climate change and climate variability?
STEPHANIE FAUVER: We can expect to see a lot of impacts from climate change and climate variability. We may see increased flooding, heavier downpours in storms, and along with that comes increased property damage and the potential for loss of life. Heat waves are expected to become more frequent. And with those heat waves comes declining air quality and the potential for loss of life. Increased drought is a possibility, and the potential for crop damage and increased forest fires as a result of drought. In some coastal regions, public infrastructure like roads and water and sewer treatment plants and port facilities are found in low lying areas. They can expect to see increased impacts from future flooding.

Some economic impacts as a result of climate change and climate variability are also expected. Damage from coastal ecosystems and fisheries can result in loss of revenue for folks that rely on those resources for their livelihood. Also a loss of revenue from tourism dollars if the beaches are damaged from sea level rise and erosion from strong storms.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. There is potential for us to see a few benefits from climate change. There will be increased opportunities for tourism in some of the colder climates if they have a longer tourism season. And also the potential for longer growing seasons in cold climates.

HOST: Stephanie, are there ways that communities and individuals can prepare for these impacts of climate change that you’ve talked about so far today?
STEPHANIE FAUVER: There are a lot of ways that communities and people in those communities can start to prepare. It won’t happen overnight. It is an ongoing process and it will take time, but it’s definitely worth doing.

I would encourage people to take a look at the planning activities in their community and see where they might be able to consider climate variability and climate change and the impacts that we’re going to see. If they look at comprehensive plans or development plans that many communities are working on, they can think about the future growth of their community and do it smartly. We don’t want to put ourselves in the situation where we’re building infrastructure and putting people in harm’s way.

We also need to think about water resources and where we’ll get our fresh water as more people move into coastal areas. We don’t want to wait for a drought situation or a water scarcity situation. We want to make sure we’re planning ahead for those water resources. Some communities also have hazards plans where they look at how they will prepare and respond to hurricanes. These may need to be a little more robust, if we think about the potential for stronger storms, and consider how climate will impact these storms in the future.   

HOST: How can communities, and the people in those communities, prepare for climate-related impacts? What’s the best first step to take?
STEPHANIE FAUVER: I recommend to start those conversations now. Identify people in your community that have a stake in this issue since it affects many aspects of the community. Find a champion, find someone that is onboard with climate change, is already working the issue or already talking about the issue and is ready to start to take action.

Another initial step is to find the climate experts in your area – you have a state climatologist that you can call on, some folks in universities would be helpful as well, your local Sea Grant extension agents – find the people in your area that can help you understand what the impacts are going to be. Start to talk about those impacts and start to identify who and what will be impacted. Maybe it’s certain neighborhoods, maybe it’s infrastructure, critical facilities, the hospitals that are in low lying areas, so start to look at who and what will be impacted.

In one community where we’re working, the city officials are having conversations and the mayor has been involved and they’re starting to talk about what impacts they will see. 

HOST: Thanks Stephanie for the information you’ve given us today, so far, to help us understand more about climate change and ways we can start to prepare for impacts. What is the National Ocean Service’s role in helping communities prepare for climate change impacts?
STEPHANIE FAUVER: Well Kate, NOAA and the National Ocean Service provide a host of resources to help communities – everything from data and research to climate modeling and tools and techniques to identify their impacts and help them develop strategies to prepare for climate change. The National Ocean Service is responsible for keeping track of water levels and calculating trends and changes in water level.

We also monitor changes to the natural environment to help us identify where climate variability and climate change are having an effect on say marsh grass and other habitats, which are critical areas for our ocean and for ocean life.

The National Ocean Service also works directly with state decision makers and planners to help them identify what risks and vulnerabilities exist in their community, and how they can start to take action to address these risks. The National Ocean Service also works with coastal decision makers to bring them together to talk about the issues and help them build their own capacity to address the problems.

HOST: Stephanie, can you highlight a few of the products or tools that you have to help folks get started?
STEPHANIE FAUVER: Sure Kate. The Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management just issued a guidebook, “Adapting to Climate Change: A Planning Guide for State Coastal Managers,” and this takes state managers through the process to identify the impacts that they can expect from climate change, they look at pulling together their team to develop a plan, identifying strategies to deal with climate change, and then implementing their plan and evaluating their progress. All of the states are at different levels in terms of planning, but they all can find helpful information in this guide, no matter what level of the process they’re at.

We also have a coastal climate adaptation website. This website provides access to adaptation plans and strategies and lessons learned from the states and the communities around the country that have already started in this process. We always hear from people that they want to know what others are doing, “give me an example, give me something I can look at to see how other people are taking action.” So this site provides access to a lot of those examples. It also allows users to post questions and share lessons learned about their experiences, so they can learn from their peers.

We also have a training that has been developed by the National Estuarine Research Reserve. It’s a one-day workshop and it brings folks together in their community to start to talk about the issues. They learn from their local experts about climate impacts, what they can expect, and then they get into groups and talk about the issues that are relevant to them, what’s most important, and then identify some actions they can take when they leave that room, how they can work together, and what they can do to start to address the problems.

HOST: Do we have any data or first-hand experiences on the success of these resources?
STEPHANIE FAUVER: Some of these resources are still quite new and we are still evaluating how people are using the information and the resources that we have, but we continually hear from people at the end of these workshops, that tell us how they’re really glad they got together and started talking about the issues, and they’re motivated, and they’re ready to go back to their staff members or to talk to their council members or to go back to their wastewater management folks and say, “we need to consider climate change, we need to start to think about this issue, and how it will impact what we already do.”

We recently worked with a group in South Florida. They were trying to figure out what their impacts were and where they were going to see problems from sea level rise. We gathered them together and had them talk about their methods for mapping sea level rise. They decided what process they were going to use, so they were all on the same page, and they were delivering a consistent message to their residents, and now they’re starting to show those maps and use those for outreach to their communities to say what impacts they could see and where the problem areas are. One of their big issues is salt water intrusion into their freshwater resources. They’re worried about potential issues with increased development and with additional folks moving into that area. They already have stress on their water resources and they need to make sure that they can accommodate additional sea level rise.

HOST: Thanks Stephanie, so sometimes it’s just about getting the conversation started. Because many of our listeners don’t live along the coast, how is what you’ve talked about today with climate variability and the resources out there to help us prepare, how is that important to them?
STEPHANIE FAUVER: Kate, that’s a great question. Many of the impacts from climate change and climate variability will impact inland areas as well. Some of the listeners may recall the drought in Georgia in 2008. Water levels in the lakes, which is their fresh water resource, became dangerously low. They were already implementing water conservation measures and they were looking to enter into agreements with surrounding states to find alternative sources for fresh water. So this isn’t just a coastal problem – drought and flooding impact inland areas as well.

With climate variability, we also see extreme heat conditions, particularly cities around the country are vulnerable to these impacts. So that’s something that is not just going to affect the coast.

HOST: Stephanie, do you have any final closing words for our listeners today?
STEPHANIE FAUVER: I think a resident of coastal Georgia said it best at a workshop recently. She was still kind of on the fence about climate change, but she said that in Savannah, the anticipation every year is for a hurricane. Thankfully they haven’t had one, but they still plan for a hurricane. She said that’s how this needs to be done. It has to be that they’re doing this planning in the event that sea level rises.

So if your community is not quite ready to talk about climate change, you can still find a message that would work with your residents and with your decision makers. Whether it’s about human health or safety or hazards such as hurricanes or strong storms, find the approach that works and begin to have those conversations.

HOST: Thanks Stephanie for joining us on Diving Deeper and talking more about climate change impacts and how best to prepare for these in our communities. To learn more, visit  

That’s all for today’s show. Please join us for Diving Deeper Shorts in two weeks.