United States
Environmental Protection
L Agency
What Climate Change
Means for Rhode Island
August 2016
EPA 430-F-16-041
Rhode Island's climate is changing. The state has warmed about
three degrees (F) since the year 1900. Throughout the north-
eastern United States, spring is arriving earlier and bringing more
precipitation, heavy rainstorms are more frequent, and summers
are hotter and drier. Sea level is rising, and severe storms
increasingly cause floods that damage properly and infrastruc-
ture. In the coming decades, the changing climate is likely to
increase flooding, harm ecosystems, disrupt fishing, and
increase some risks to human health.
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.
Increasing Temperature and Changing
Precipitation Patterns
Rising temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns are likely to
increase the intensity of both floods and droughts. Average
annual precipitation in the Northeast increased 10 percent
from 1895 to 2011, and precipitation from extremely heavy
storms has increased 70 percent since 1958. During the next
century, average annual precipitation and the frequency of
heavy downpours are likely to keep rising. Average precipita-
tion is likely to increase during winter and spring, but not
change significantly during summer and fall. Rising tempera-
tures will melt snow earlier in spring and increase evaporation,
and thereby dry the soil during summer and fall. So flooding is
likely to be worse during winter and spring, and droughts
worse during summer and fall.
Historically heavy rains in spring 2010 caused the Pawtuxet River
to flood the Waiwick wastewater treatment plant (shown here) and
many homes and businesses. Credit: Waiwick Sewer Authority.
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
Temperature change (°F):
-1 -0.5 0 0.5 1 1,5 2 2.5 3 3.5
Rising temperatures in the last century. Rhode Island has warned twice
as much as the rest of the contiguous 48 states. Source: EPA, Climate
Change Indicators in the United States.
Changing climate threatens ecosystems by disrupting rela-
tionships between species. Wildflowers and woody perennials
are blooming—and migratory birds are arriving—sooner in
spring. Not ail species adjust in the same way, however, so the
food that one species needs may no longer be available when
that species arrives on its migration. Warmer temperatures
allow deer populations to increase, leading to a loss of forest
underbrush, which makes some animals more vulnerable to
predators. Rising temperatures also enable invasive species
to move into areas that were previously too cold.

Sea Level Rise, Wetland Loss, and Coastal Flooding
Rising sea level erodes wetlands and beaches and increases
damage from coastal storms. Tidal wetlands are inherently
vulnerable because of their low elevations, and shoreline
development prevents them from migrating inland onto higher
ground. Human activities such as filling wetlands have destroyed
about one third of New England's coastal wetlands since the
early 1800s. Wetlands provide habitat for many bird species,
such as osprey and heron, as well as several fish species. Losing
coastal wetlands would harm coastal ecosystems and remove an
important line of defense against coastal flooding.
Coastal cities and towns will become more vulnerable to storms
in the coming century as sea level rises, shorelines erode, and
storm surges become higher. Storms can destroy coastal homes,
wash out highways and rail lines, and damage essential commu-
nication, energy, and wastewater management infrastructure.
Hurricane Sandy caused a storm surge that breached the barrier beach
at Trustom Pond in Charlestown in 2012. Sea level rise leads to higher,
more damaging storm surge. Credit: Greg Thompson, U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service.
Fishing and Agriculture
Parts of Rhode Island's fishing and farming sectors may suffer
as climate changes. Rising water temperatures can lower oxygen
levels and otherwise alter freshwater and marine ecosystems.
Some fish such as bass may flourish in the Northeast's warming
waters, but key ocean fisheries, such as cod and lobster south of
Cape Cod, are expected to decline. The loss of coastal wetlands
could harm commercially important fish and shellfish, such as
bass and clams. Climate change may also pose challenges for
agriculture: Some farms may be harmed if more hot days and
droughts reduce crop yields, or if more flooding and wetter
springs delay their planting dates. Other farms may benefit
from a longer growing season and the fertilizing effect of
carbon dioxide.
Human Health
Changes in temperature and precipitation could increase the
incidence of acute and chronic respiratory conditions such as
asthma. Higher temperatures can increase the formation of
ground-level ozone (smog), a pollutant that can contribute to
respiratory problems. Rising temperatures may also increase
the length and severity of the pollen season for plants such as
ragweed—which has already been observed in other regions.
Certain people are especially vulnerable, including children, the
elderly, the sick, and the poor.
The risk of some diseases carried by insects may also increase.
The ticks that transmit Lyme disease are active when tempera-
tures are above 45°F, so warmer winters could lengthen the
season during which ticks can become infected or people can be
exposed to the ticks. Higher temperatures would also make more
of New England warm enough for the Asian tiger mosquito, a
common carrier of West Nile virus. The number of cases may or
may not increase, depending on what people do to control insect
populations and avoid insect bites.
The sources of information about climate and the impacts of climate change in this publication are: the national climate assessments by the U.S. Global Change Research
Program, assessment reports by the Intergovernmental Panei 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 iikelihood 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.