WASHINGTON, July 10, 2008 – As the Southeast contends with the second consecutive year of exceptional drought, a new report commissioned by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) projects that climate change will increasingly stress water resources and affect water quality over a major portion of the region. The report, which was presented at a congressional briefing on Capitol Hill today, concludes that climate impacts on water resources are likely to be further exacerbated by population growth and land use changes. At risk are hundreds of unique, threatened, or endangered aquatic vertebrate species.
“From droughts in the Southeast to floods in the Midwest, we are experiencing severe weather events that are not going away any time soon,” said Ginette Hemley, WWF senior vice president for conservation strategy and science. “The science is now confirming that climate change is altering the frequency and severity of many extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and hurricanes, thus increasing our need for national preparedness.” Hemley noted that a report issued three weeks ago by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program also drew a connection between climate change and extreme weather (see press release).
The report presented today, Vulnerability of the Southeastern United States to Climate Change [pdf], covers the watersheds of the Tennessee, Mobile and Cumberland River basins that include portions of Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. The study region, a WWF priority area, is one of the most species-rich ecosystems in the world. It also is one of the most densely populated and fastest growing areas of the country, fueling a rapid conversion from forest to urban areas, which the report says “will potentially degrade and deplete water quality and quantity across the region.”
The study also finds that in addition to changes in water availability, the intensity of individual rain events has increased and is likely to continue to increase over the next century. As precipitation intensity increases, flooding, soil erosion and reduced water quality are likely, the report says.
Dr. Steve McNulty of the USDA Forest Service, who conducted the study, said, “Over the last century, high quality water has been supplied at relatively low cost in this region. However, that is poised to change with increasing population and ensuing land use change, changing climate and climate variability.”
Twenty-four high school students who were impacted by Hurricane Katrina supported McNulty’s research and participated in the Congressional briefing. The students, members of the WWF Allianz Southeast Climate Change Program, have been participating in a rigorous academic program that is educating them on the science of climate change and molding them into the next generation of environmental leaders. While no individual storm can be attributed solely to climate change, Katrina illustrated the vulnerability of the Gulf Coast to hurricanes that are likely to become more destructive as the climate is disrupted, compelling the students to get involved.
The students’ training and research is being supported by a grant from the Allianz Foundation of North America. “This program was created for students to learn about a critical issue and to provide an opportunity for them to do something about it,” said the Reverend Christopher Worthley, the foundation’s executive director. “The program is giving youth whose families were impacted by Hurricane Katrina the opportunity to learn more about climate change, including how the Southeastern U.S. is particularly vulnerable to it, and how it is affecting their lives.”
The Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which co-hosted today’s briefing, is scheduled to hold a hearing this afternoon on the impact of climate change on extreme weather.
Note to editors:
Read the summary of the report, Vulnerability of the Southeastern United States to Climate Change
* "Vulnerability of the Southeastern United States to Climate Change" is a draft report awaiting the peer review process. Consequently, the findings and conclusions have not been formally disseminated by the Forest Service and should not be construed to represent any agency determination or policy.