All the things that could ruin summer – heat waves, mosquitoes, even poison ivy – are made worse by climate change and will get worse in the future, experts said Tuesday.
And it is more than just a nuisance as increasing heat waves in the eastern United States will kill thousands of people decades from now, a recent study concluded.
On a conference call by the advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council, experts cited a number of different summertime annoyances that will worsen as global temperatures continue to rise.
Increasing carbon dioxide, for instance, fuels the growth of certain plants and poison ivy is one that responds really well to it, said Dr. Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who has studied the impact of climate change for about 25 years. It also causes the plants to produce a stronger form of urushiol, the oil in the leaves of poison ivy that causes skin rash, he said.
Citing the conclusions of the recently released National Climate Assessment, of which she was a co-author, Dr. Kim Knowlton of Columbia University said the impact of climate change is already being felt.
“We used to think that climate change was happening to other people but now it is clearly happening to us,” she said.
The increase in temperatures is allowing disease-carrying pests such as mosquitoes and certain ticks to spread to areas they have never been before and spreading those diseases as well, Knowlton said. There are already an estimated 300,000 people who contract tick-borne Lyme disease each year even with the ticks that carry it mostly confined to the Northeast, but that could change in coming decades as those ticks become more prevalent across the eastern U.S., she said.
People in the East will have bigger problems. According to a recent study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, increasing heat waves in the region could kill thousands a year in coming decades. The authors estimate that heat waves could be 3.4 times to 6.4 times more prevalent by 2057-59 and deaths will be 7.5 times to 19 times higher, and would be highest in Southern states such as Georgia and Florida.
Depending on the model used, the number of deaths each year from heat waves would be 1,403 or 3,556 per year by 2057-59, according to the study.
“Increases in heat-related mortality are a concern in cities nationwide,” Knowlton said.
More are thought to occur in Northern cities – a heat wave in Chicago in 1995 killed 700 people – because people there would be less acclimated to it, but it is no longer confined to those areas, she said.
“We are projecting that there will be (more) with greater average temperatures and (with) those longer-lasting heat waves it is going to be an issue nationwide,” Knowlton said.
The greater concentrations of carbon dioxide that trap heat are also having curious effects on food, Ziska said. A recent study in the journal Nature found higher carbon dioxide made food starchier, with fewer nutrients and less protein, he said.
There is already a concern about air quality – about 145 million Americans live in areas where ground-level ozone or smog is a problem, Knowlton said. Augusta has already had one day this year when it exceeded permitted ozone levels, and it violated federal air quality standards three times in 2013, according the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Environmental Protection Division.
“If we don’t take action soon to reduce the carbon pollution that causes climate change, soon summers won’t be a picnic for many of us,” Knowlton said.