The Climate Future Of The Land Of Pleasant Living | WYPR

The Climate Future Of The Land Of Pleasant Living

Oct 16, 2019

Associate Professor Matt Fitzpatrick
Credit University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

Many of us would like to gaze into a crystal ball and see what the future will be like.

Well, Matt Fitzpatrick, an ecologist and associate professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, did just that for Baltimore. And he discovered that our future is … Mississippi.

In an article published in the scientific journal Nature Communications, Fitzpatrick examined the best available climate change modeling data for 540 North American cities sixty years from now, assuming that current rates of greenhouse gas pollution continue.

“By 2080, we expect Baltimore’s climate to become most like those found in the Deep South today,” Fitzpatrick said. “So we are talking Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, East Texas, those kinds of places.  Actually the best match is a town called Cleveland, Mississippi, in the northwestern part of the state.”

In case you are not familiar with this non-Ohio Cleveland, Cleveland, Mississippi, is a depopulating town of about 12,000 souls in the Mississippi Delta. It has a per capita income less than half that of Baltimore’s and is most famous as the former home to the legendary blues musician W.C. Handy, who called himself the father of the blues.

How does Cleveland’s weather compare to that of Charm City?

“So in summer, we are talking about 6 degrees warmer on average and about 8 percent drier,” Fitzpatrick said. “And the really big changes come in winter.  The winter in Cleveland, Mississippi, is about nine degrees Fahrenheit warmer, on average, than Baltimore on average is today, and about 60 percent wetter.”  

Over all, Fitzpatrick projects that the Baltimore area will get about a half-foot more rain every year.  That will have a major impact on flooding, as will rising sea levels.  It will also mean significantly more water pollution being washed from farm and parking lots into the Chesapeake Bay.

From a cultural standpoint, one significant change will be the virtual elimination of snow in the winter, Fitzpatrick predicts.  From 1980 through 2018, Baltimore had 30 days per year on average with some amount of snow on the ground.  With climate change, that is expected to fall to about one day of now a year by 2080.

“So you can think of white Christmas becoming a thing of the past,” Fitzpatrick said. “Or something that happens only once in a generation – a very rare event.  So it’s a completely different kind of place.”

Other scientists have reached similar conclusions.  Christina Dahl is senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. She said that, historically, Baltimore has had an average of six days per year with a heat index over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.  By the year, 2050, that is expected to rise to 37 days a year over 100 degrees.

“Extreme heat affects people’s health directly,” said Dahl. “On a low level, people can suffer from heat exhaustion or heat cramps.  But the longer we are exposed to extremely hot conditions, the more susceptible we are to severe heat-related illnesses, like heat stroke, which can cause hospitalization and can even be fatal.”

Much of this health burden would fall on the elderly and poor who can’t afford air conditioning. And it would also impact children, who struggle to learn in antiquated public school buildings that lack air conditioners.

The researchers emphasize that all of this warming is not inevitable.  For example, if the world switches to cleaner, low-carbon sources of energy by midcentury, Baltimore’s climate change would only be about half of what  Matt Fitzpatrick projects. That means we’d end up more like Jonesboro, Arkansas, instead of Cleveland, Mississippi, by the year 2080. 

Still, that’s a big shift – and should be a major motivation to change.