(TNS) - Perhaps in as little as 20 years, climate change could dramatically impact the economy and lives in Volusia, St. Johns and Flagler counties — mostly as a result of rising seas and higher temperatures.
That's the conclusion of a recent ProPublica study using county-by-county data from the Rhodium Group, an independent research provider that combines climate and economic information to analyze and predict trends. ProPublica is a national, nonprofit newsroom that focuses on investigative projects.
Of the 3,141 counties and county equivalents the study analyzed in the United States, Volusia County ranked as the 42nd most affected by climate change, St. Johns County ranked 44th, and Flagler County ranked 126th.
But don't think about moving just yet. As with most analysis involving climate change, the study's predictions are theoretical. Still, the study's conclusions are concerning, area officials said.
Flagler County Emergency Management Director Jonathan Lord said the information is worrisome “to say the least,” and is thankful that the county is prepared to adjust if the effects of climate change begin to heavily affect the area.
“We’re looking for ways we can mitigate and limit those impacts. We can’t stop it, but we can adapt,” Lord said. “We know the climate is changing, and we need to make sure we have steady, critical infrastructure, and make sure it won’t be put in places that will be affected by things like sea level rise."
From failing economies in coastal cities to struggling farm crop yields, climate change will impact communities in overwhelming, often completely devastating ways, according to the analysis.
The data, which predicts the effects of climate change across the U.S., shows an upheaval in the nation’s way of life in just 20-to-40 years. For Volusia, St. Johns and Flagler counties, the upheaval could be significant.
Separated into six different categories — heat, wet bulb, farm crop yields, sea level rise, very large fires and economic damages — the data from the Rhodium Group can be separated into two scenarios: one where carbon emissions are flat-lined into a moderate scenario, and an extreme scenario, where carbon emissions continue to increase.
In Volusia, Flagler and St. Johns counties, the most concerning data points to economic troubles, increasing temperatures and rising sea levels, as well as devastating crop losses.
Volusia County, under the extreme scenario, would see a 10% decrease of gross domestic product, or GDP, and a 3.5% decrease under the moderate scenario. St. Johns County could see a GDP decrease of from 1-to-3.5%, and Flagler County could see a decrease of .4-to-3.5%.
Under the extreme scenario, between 2040 and 2060 scorching temperatures will become even more commonplace in Florida. Volusia, St. Johns and Flagler counties are predicted to have five to eight weeks out of the year where temperatures remain above 95 degrees.
Wet bulb temperatures — when an area’s humidity cancels out the body’s ability to cool down through perspiring, making a slightly toasty day feel blazing hot — will create an increase risk of heat stroke and death. For Volusia and St. Johns counties, the extreme scenario predicts 15 wet bulb days, and five for Flagler County. Under the moderate scenario, that drops down to five days in Volusia and St. Johns counties and one day for Flagler County.
Then there is the issue of rising seas.
As the temperature increase, ocean levels will expand and rising seas will affect coastal communities and a large amount of the area's population. In both the moderate and extreme cases, Volusia, St. Johns and Flagler counties will see 2% of current property end up below the high tide line, according to the report's predictions.
As heat and wet bulb days tick upward, it will also be harder to grow food. Data shows that farm crop yields, mostly corn and soy beans, the most prevalent crops in the U.S., will be significantly damaged.
Volusia County is expected to see a 6.5-to-13% drop in crop yields, and Flagler and St. Johns counties, which are more agricultural, could see a 13-to-44% decrease in crop yields.
Large fires — ones that burn at least 12,000 acres — are less a concern for the three counties.
But Lord said wildfires and intracoastal flooding due to sea level rise are on the top of his priority list. Between Flagler County’s “unfortunate” history of wildfires a couple decades back, and the already visible uptick in flooding days around the Intracoastal waterway, he said it will take a community effort to combat what they can. That would include public awareness campaigns reminding residents about burn bans during the dry season, or through the county’s push to create better dunes and sea walls.
Lord said they can’t wait any longer.
“Historically, there’s always been flooding up to Flagler Avenue, but recently, we’ve been seeing flooding up to Daytona Avenue (in Flagler Beach). It’s very evident now,” he said. “And in the Hammock area, there are wells that are impacted by saltwater intrusion. We used to just be worried when hurricanes came in, but now there’s more pressure on a standard basis because of those rising sea levels. We’re just trying to watch and find solutions for that.”
In Volusia County, County Chair Ed Kelley said despite his own less-alarmist views on climate change, staff is hard at work prioritizing the safety of the county's infrastructure as rising sea levels begin to affect roadways, businesses and homes.
“The impacts (of climate change) are projected are given and also questioned by different people, by different sides of the story, but we, the county, are taking care of what's in front of us," Kelley said. "I support the levels of what (the county) looked at.
"Climate change has existed since man began on this earth," Kelly said. "The climate changes every year, every decade. There are very few years that things have stayed the same. I am also one to not believe the dire straits projection. Sea levels have changed for centuries.”
Volusia County’s Environmental Management Department declined to comment on ProPublica’s data. but Katrina Locke, sustainability and resilience manager for the county, supplied The News-Journal with a list of measures the county is taking to adapt to climate change.
The list includes actions to join and approve plans with the East Central Florida Regional Resilience Collaborative: a group of counties, cities, organizations and educational institutions dedicated to combating climate change in a holistic way, from infrastructure needs to rising sea levels. Those rising sea level efforts are part of an action plan approved by the county in July 2019.
“Staff continue to work through the goals, objectives and action steps in the (action plan). On Oct. 6, the Volusia County Council approved a Florida resilient coastlines program grant with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection,” Locke said. “The grant will focus on developing adaptation action areas in the unincorporated areas of the county to reduce these impacts and to develop strategies that will increase community resiliency, and protect public infrastructure and personal property.”
According to Florida Statutes, adaptation action areas are designations by coastal management that identify areas that experience coastal flooding due to extreme high tides and storm surge. The grant is for $75,000.
Locke also said Volusia County staff are taking part in multiple projects, whether they be with educational institutions like Stetson University or the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council, focusing on storm surge and sea level rise mitigation.
Tidal flooding mitigation is a large part of St. Augustine's adaptation to climate change, according to the city's website. Between rising sea levels and astronomical tides, the city experiences significant inundation 12 to 16 times a year. That's prompted the city to work on stormwater projects and valve installations to prevent water from backing up into roads through the stormwater system during those higher-than-normal tides.
St. Johns County has more than 40 miles of coastline. Of that, 16.3 miles were critically eroded as of June 2019, according to a report by the FDEP. Beach renourishment programs are scattered throughout the county, with heavy emphasis on St. Augustine Beach and the beach from Serenata Beach Ocean Villas to Nease Beachfront Park.
As expensive and expansive as the projects might get, Lord said they’re necessary to maintain the community’s way of life.
“We can’t stop climate change, but we can make smart decisions as a community and as a government to protect your property, and your home, and your business,” Lord said. “We’re just making sure that we adapt as needed.”
This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Volusia-Flagler-St. Johns to be heavily affected by climate change, data predicts
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