A United States
Environmental Protection
LI M % Agency
August 2016
EPA 430-F-16-035
What Climate Change

/weans fo/-North Carolina

Temperature change (°F):
Rising temperatures in the last century. North Carolina has
warmed less than most of the United States. Source: U.S. EPA,
Climate Change Indicators in the United States.
Beach houses in Nags Head are vulnerable to severe storms, flooding, and
coastal erosion. © James G Titus; used by permission.
North Carolina's climate is changing. Most of the state
has warmed one-half to one degree (F) in the last century,
and the sea is rising about one inch every decade. Higher
water levels are eroding beaches, submerging low lands,
exacerbating coastal flooding, and increasing the salinity
of estuaries and aquifers. The southeastern United States
has warmed less than most of the nation. But in the
coming decades, the region's changing climate is likely to
reduce crop yields, harm livestock, increase the number
of unpleasantly hot days, and increase the risk of heat
stroke and other heat-related illnesses.
Our climate is changing because the earth is warming.
People have increased the amount of carbon dioxide in
the air by 40 percent since the late 1700s. Other heat-
trapping greenhouse gases are also increasing. These
gases have warmed the surface and lower atmosphere of
our planet about one degree during the last 50 years.
Evaporation increases as the atmosphere warms, which
increases humidity, average rainfall, and the frequency of
heavy rainstorms in many places—but contributes to
drought in others.
Greenhouse gases are also changing the world's oceans
and ice cover. Carbon dioxide reacts with water to form
carbonic acid, so the oceans are becoming more acidic.
The surface of the ocean has warmed about one degree
during the last 80 years. Warming is causing snow to melt
earlier in spring, and mountain glaciers are retreating.
Even the great ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica are
shrinking. Thus the sea is rising at an increasing rate.
Rising Seas and Retreating Shores
As the oceans warm, seawater expands and raises sea level.
Melting ice adds more water to the ocean, further raising sea level.
Along much of the Atlantic Coast, including parts of North Carolina,
the land surface is sinking, so the observed rate of sea level rise
relative to the land is greater than the global average rise. Sea level
is likely to rise one to four feet in the next century along the coast
of North Carolina.
As sea level rises, the lowest dry lands are submerged and become
either tidal wetland or open water. Most existing wetlands can
create their own land and keep pace with a slowly rising sea. But if
sea level rises three feet in the next century, most of the wetlands
on the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula are likely to be submerged by
the higher water level.
Beaches also erode as sea level rises. A higher water level makes
it more likely that storm waters will wash over a barrier island or
open new inlets. The United States Geological Survey estimates
that the lightly developed Outer Banks between Nags Head and
Ocracoke could be broken up by new inlets or lost to erosion if sea
level rises two feet by the year 2100. Eroding shores will threaten
most coastal towns unless people take measures to halt the

Coastal Ecosystems
As sea level rises, salt water can mix farther upstream and
farther inland in aquifers and wetlands. Increasing salinity
can kill some types of trees found in swamps. Salt water also
reacts with some wetland soils, which causes the surface of the
wetlands to sink below the water, adding to the loss of wetlands.
Trees killed by increasing salinity near Camden Point. © James G.
Titus; used by permission.
Many species of birds and fish in North Carolina depend on
coastal wetlands threatened by rising sea level. Blue crabs,
shrimp, and southern flounder use marshes for both feeding and
evading larger predators. Larger fish such as sea trout and red
drum also feed in these marshes. Many types of birds feed on
fish in the marsh, including egrets and herons. Wetlands along
the Alligator River are the principal habitat in the wild for the
endangered red wolf. Pocosin swamps provide refuge for black
bears and bobcats, and they help to maintain water quality in the
nearby sounds.
Storms, Homes, and Infrastructure
Tropical storms and hurricanes have become more intense
during the past 20 years. Although warming oceans provide
these storms with more potential energy, scientists are not sure
whether the recent intensification reflects a long-term trend.
Nevertheless, hurricane wind speeds and rainfall rates are likely
to increase as the climate continues to warm.
Water covering front yards near Swan Quarter. ©James G. Titus;
used by permission.
Whether or not storms become more intense, coastal homes and
infrastructure will flood more often as sea level rises, because
storm surges will become higher as well. Rising sea level is likely
to increase flood insurance rates, while more frequent storms
could increase the deductible for wind damage in homeowner
insurance policies. Many cities, roads, railways, ports, airports,
oil and gas facilities, and water supplies in the Southeast are
vulnerable to the impacts of storms and sea level rise. People
may move from vulnerable coastal communities and stress the
infrastructure of the communities that receive them.
Increased rainfall may further exacerbate flooding in some
coastal areas. Since 1958, the amount of precipitation during
heavy rainstorms has increased by 27 percent in the Southeast,
and the trend toward increasingly heavy rainstorms is likely to
Changing the climate will have both harmful and beneficial
effects on farming. During the next few decades, hotter
summers are likely to reduce yields of corn. But higher
concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide increase crop
yields, and that fertilizing effect is likely to offset the harmful
effects of heat on cotton, soybeans, wheat, and peanuts—if
enough water is available. More severe droughts however,
could cause crop failures. Higher temperatures are also likely
to reduce livestock productivity, because heat stress disrupts
the animals' metabolism.
Seventy years from now, temperatures are likely to rise above
95°F approximately 20 to 40 days per year in most of the state,
compared with about 10 days per year today. Greater use of
air-conditioning will increase electricity consumption.
Human Health
Hot days can be unhealthy—even dangerous. Certain people
are especially vulnerable, including children, the elderly, the
sick, and the poor. High air temperatures can cause heat
stroke and dehydration and affect people's cardiovascular and
nervous systems. Warmer air can also increase the formation
of ground-level ozone, a key component of smog. Ozone has a
variety of health effects, aggravates lung diseases such as
asthma, and increases the risk of premature death from heart
or lung disease, so EPA and the North Carolina Division of Air
Quality have been working to reduce ozone concentrations. As
the climate changes, continued progress toward clean air will
become more difficult.
The sources of information about ciimate and the impacts of climate change in this publication are: the national climate assessments by the U.S. Global Change
Research Program, synthesis and assessment products by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, assessment reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change, and EPA's Climate Change Indicators in the United States. Mention of a particular season, location, species, or any other aspect of an impact does not imply
anything about the likelihood or importance of aspects that are not mentioned. For more Information about climate change science, Impacts, responses, and what you
can do, visit EPA's Climate Change website at www.epa.aov/climatechanae.