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8 takeaways for the Northeast from the National Climate Assessment

A car drives through flood water by the Chart House on Boston's Long Wharf during a November king tide. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A car drives through flood water by the Chart House on Boston's Long Wharf during a November king tide. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Climate change is hitting the Northeast hard, bringing heat waves and floods that threaten health, homes and the livelihoods of farmers and fishermen. But there’s also good news, like laws to reduce greenhouse gasses and innovative ways to protect ourselves.

Those are some conclusions from the fifth National Climate Assessment, which was released Tuesday. Fourteen federal agencies contributed to the report, which is mandated by law and produced at least every four years, although this one took close to five.

The conclusions are similar to those in the 2018 report, with more effort to integrate indigenous knowledge and a deeper acknowledgement that historically disadvantaged communities will be the hardest hit. This is also the first National Climate Assessment that will be fully available in Spanish.

The report also points out that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell 12% between 2005 and 2019, and wind and solar energy costs dropped 70% and 90%, respectively, over the last decade. In 2021 and 2022, however, emissions increased.

Here are eight takeaways for the Northeast from the report.

New England leads the country on climate laws

Five of the New England states have laws requiring emissions reductions of at least 80% by 2050 (usually against a 1990 baseline). New Hampshire's climate plan just "recommends" that level of reduction. The groundbreaking Massachusetts climate law mandates that all new vehicles sales be zero emissions by 2035, and introduced a pilot program allowing some municipalities to ban fossil fuel connections in new construction.

Climate action plans in the Northeast increasingly include nature-based solutions, like planting urban trees and building green infrastructure for slowing and holding stormwater runoff, like a new series of stormwater-catching ponds in Reading. The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) rebuilt and replanted beach dunes for coastal protection. Green infrastructure can also add other benefits like shade, improved air quality, and evenfresh food.

The report also gave a shout-out to Massachusetts’ Mass timber accelerator program, which encourages next-generation buildings made out of carbon-storing, extra-strong, “cross laminated” timber. Projects like 11 East Lenox, Boston’s first mass timber net-zero building, demonstrate the potential for beautiful buildings that help alleviate the effects of climate change.

The last 12 months have been the hottest on record

Heat is the leading weather-related cause of death in the U.S. When combined with humidity, even lower temperatures can be harmful. The “heat index” is what the temperature feels like when you combine humidity and air temperature. By midcentury, days with a heat index over 100°F are projected to increase threefold in the Northeast. Public officials recommend taking “extreme caution” any time the heat index reaches 90 to 103 degrees Fahrenheit, as prolonged exposure can lead to heat stroke.

Tomas Cardoso and Romeo Gonzales remove the burpal covering the roots of the tree at Prescott Sq. Park in East Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Jesse Costa
Tomas Cardoso and Romeo Gonzales remove the burpal covering the roots of the tree at Prescott Sq. Park in East Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

More heavy rain means trouble

Extreme precipitation has increased by about 60% in the region, the largest increase in the U.S. These sudden downpours cause all sorts of problems.

In rural areas, flash flooding can cause rivers to overflow; this happened in Vermont and western Massachusetts in July, drowning many crops. Wetter springs are also expected to delay planting, postpone harvests and reduce yields.

In urban areas, stormwater runoff can overwhelm sewer systems, leading to road flooding and untreated sewage in waterways.

The U.S. now experiences, on average, a billion-dollar weather or climate disaster every three weeks. The Northeast already had at least two in 2023: the February cold snap and summer flooding.

Bigger storm surges are coming, too

A “storm surge” is when sea levels rise abnormally high and fast due to stormy weather. Stronger hurricanes and rising sea levels are increasing the risk of stronger storm surges, and coastal floods will be bigger and more frequent. By 2050, coastal sea levels are expected to rise about 11 inches — That's about as much as they've risen in the last 100 years. As a result, coastal flooding will occur five to 10 times more often by 2050 than in 2020.

Coastal flooding is increasing risks to drinking water supplies and septic tanks and also causing shoreline erosion, road damage and drowned wetlands (ironic, right?), according to the report.

Most homeowners still don't have flood insurance

On average, 6.5% of homeowners in Northeast coastal counties have flood insurance. Inland it's a measly 1.3%. There are only two counties in the Northeast where more than half of homeowners have flood insurance: Cape May, New Jersey, and Worcester, Maryland. The report blames this lack of flood insurance on high costs and “the underestimation of risk by individuals.”

Also, National Flood Insurance policy limits have not kept pace with coastal house prices. Payouts are capped at $250,000 for residential structures, well below the current median value for an existing single-family dwelling in the Northeast ($366,000) and far below the $900,000 median price tag for a home in Greater Boston.

Map of percentage of housing units covered by flood insurance in the Northeast
On average only 6.5% of northeast coastal homeowners have flood insurance. (Source: Fifth National Climate Assessment)

One more reason why people don't have flood insurance: nobody checks. People who have a mortgage in a flood zone are required by law to get flood insurance, but lenders rarely continue to verify coverage; as a result, about one-third of policyholders dump the flood insurance after three years.

Climate change is hitting some harder than others

Extreme heat, storms, flooding and other climate-related hazards are causing disproportionate harm to historically marginalized communities in the Northeast, including racial and ethnic minorities, people of lower socioeconomic status and older adults.

Growing recognition of this inequity has driven a push for environmental justice across the Northeast. For example, Massachusetts established a new office of Environmental Justice & Equity and created a $50 million grant program to fund retrofits in low- and moderate-income housing.

Triple-deckers along Edgewood Street in Dorchester. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Jesse Costa
Triple-deckers along Edgewood Street in Dorchester. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Indigenous peoples in the Northeast are responding to climate change

In the Northeast, the reservation land of some tribal nations has been reduced to one square mile or less. This poses serious threats to tribal cultures as ecosystems and animals migrate beyond tribal land. But many tribal nations are developing culturally responsive approaches to climate change.

For example, the Mi’kmaq Nation of Northern Maine (formerly known as the Aroostook Band of Micmacs) approved its Thirteen Moons Climate Change Adaptation Plan in 2022. The primary concern for the Mi’kmaq Nation is warming winters, which encourage the spread of invasive species. Already, the emerald ash borer is damaging trees and winter ticks are harming moose.

The plan calls for proactive efforts to address climate change, such as the development of solar energy, community education, and forest and wildlife health monitoring.

The report also gave a shout-out to a sea-level rise plan developed by Shinnecock Indian Nation citizen Kelsey Leonard. Called the WAMPUM Indigenous adaptation framework,it acknowledges that sea-level rise may force some tribal communities to relocate, but insists that the communities remain in charge of any moves.

Changing oceans mean more squid and fewer lobster

Ocean and coastal habitats in the Northeast are experiencing unprecedented changes, including ocean warming, marine heatwaves, sea level rise and ocean acidification. That includes:

  • More black seabass and longfin squid are showing up as the water warms.  By 2050, many cold-water species like American lobster, Atlantic cod, and Atlantic herring are expected to decline.
  • More lobster trouble: Spring warming and summer heat has led to changing molting patterns and more shell disease in American lobster.
  • More zooplankton but maybe the wrong kind: The overall diversity and abundance of zooplankton has increased, but key species have declined. For example, the decline of a tiny critter called Calanus — the favorite food of the endangered right whales — has been linked to shifts in the whales’ migration. Eventually, right whales will likely move out of the Gulf of Maine.
  • Scallops are hurting: More CO2 makes the ocean more acidic, which makes it difficult for lobster, scallops, oysters, clams and mussels to build their shells. Sea scallops could decrease by more than 50% by the end of the century. This matters because scallops are what give New Bedford the highest valued catch of any single port in the country: $451 million. Sea scallops account for 84% of that haul.

This story was originally published by WBUR. It was shared as part of the New England News Collaborative.