This website is the digital version of the 2014 National Climate Assessment, produced in collaboration with the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

For the official version, please refer to the PDF in the downloads section. The downloadable PDF is the official version of the 2014 National Climate Assessment.

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Welcome to the National Climate Assessment

The National Climate Assessment summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States, now and in the future.

A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.

Explore the effects of climate change
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Rural Communities

Rural communities are highly dependent upon natural resources that are affected by climate change. These communities also face particular obstacles in responding to climate change that increase their vulnerability to its impacts.

Explore impacts on rural communities.

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Introduction

Rural Communities deals with climate change impacts that are particular to the rural parts of our nation. The Highlights section below offers a high-level overview of climate change impacts on these areas, including the three Key Messages and selected topics. (see Ch. 14: Rural Communities)

Key Message: Rural Economies

Rural communities are highly dependent upon natural resources for their livelihoods and social structures. Climate change related impacts are currently affecting rural communities. These impacts will progressively increase over this century and will shift the locations where rural economic activities (like agriculture, forestry, and recreation) can thrive.

Key Message: Responding to Risks

Rural communities face particular geographic and demographic obstacles in responding to and preparing for climate change risks. In particular, physical isolation, limited economic diversity, and higher poverty rates, combined with an aging population, increase the vulnerability of rural communities. Systems of fundamental importance to rural populations are already stressed by remoteness and limited access.

Key Message: Adaptation

Responding to additional challenges from climate change impacts will require significant adaptation within rural transportation and infrastructure systems, as well as health and emergency response systems. Governments in rural communities have limited institutional capacity to respond to, plan for, and anticipate climate change impacts.

Rural Communities

More than 95% of U.S. land area is classified as rural, but is home to just 19% of the population.2,3,4,5 Rural areas provide natural resources that much of the rest of the U.S. depends on for food, energy, water, forests, recreation, national character, and quality of life.6 Rural economic foundations and community cohesion are intricately linked to these natural systems, which are inherently vulnerable to climate change. Urban areas that depend on goods and services from rural areas will also be affected by climate change driven impacts across the countryside.

Many Rural Areas are Losing Population

Many Rural Areas are Losing Population

LossGrowth up to U.S. rateGrowth at or above U.S. rate
 

Census data show significant population decreases in many rural areas, notably in the Great Plains (white indicates metropolitan areas). Many rural communities’ existing vulnerabilities to climate change, including physical isolation, reduced services like health care, and an aging population, are projected to increase as population decreases. (Figure source: USDA Economic Research Service 20131).

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Warming, climate volatility, extreme weather events, and environmental change are already affecting the economies and cultures of rural areas. Many communities face considerable risk to their infrastructure, livelihoods, and quality of life from observed and projected climate shifts. These changes will progressively increase volatility in food commodity markets, shift locations where particular economic activities can thrive, alter the ranges of plant and animal species, and, depending on the region, increase water scarcity, exacerbate flooding and coastal erosion, and increase the intensity and frequency of wildfires across the rural landscape. Because many rural communities are less diverse than urban areas in their economic activities, changes in the viability of one traditional economic sector will place disproportionate stresses on community stability.

Rural America has already experienced impacts of climate change related weather effects, including crop and livestock loss from severe drought and flooding,7 damage to levees and roads from extreme storms,8 shifts in planting and harvesting times,9 and large-scale losses from fires and other weather-related disasters.10 These impacts have profound effects, often significantly affecting the health and well-being of rural residents and communities, and are amplified by the essential economic link between these communities and their natural resource base.

river flood waters; flooded corn field

Rriver flood waters and flooded corn field illustrate threats rural areas face in a changing climate.

Hunting, fishing, bird watching, and other wildlife-related activities will be affected as wildlife habitats shift and relationships among species change.11,12 Cold-weather recreation and tourism will be adversely affected by climate change. Snow accumulation in the West has decreased, and is expected to continue to decrease, as a result of observed and projected warming. Similar changes to snowpack are expected in the Northeast.13 Adverse impacts on winter sports are projected to be more pronounced in the Northeast and Southwest.14

Coastal areas will be adversely affected by sea level rise and increased severity of storms.15,16,17,18 Changing conditions, such as wetland loss and beach erosion in coastal areas,19 and increased risk of natural hazards such as wildfire, flash flooding, storm surge, river flooding, drought, and extremely high temperatures can alter the character and attraction of rural areas as tourist destinations.

Changing demographics and economic activities influence the ability to respond to climate change. Rural areas are characterized by higher unemployment, more dependence on government transfer payments, less diversified economies, and fewer social and economic resources needed for resilience in the face of climate change.14,20

Adaptation Challenges

Climate variability and increases in temperature, extreme events (such as storms, floods, heat waves, and droughts), and sea level rise are expected to have widespread impacts on the provision of services from state, regional, local, and tribal governments. Emergency management, energy use and distribution systems, transportation and infrastructure planning, and public health will all be affected.

Rural governments often depend heavily on volunteers to meet community challenges like fire protection or flood response. Rural communities have limited locally available financial resources to cope with the effects of climate change. Small community size tends to make services expensive or available only by traveling some distance.

Adaptation efforts require planning, but local governance structures tend to de-emphasize planning capacity compared to urban areas. While 73% of metropolitan counties have land-use planners, only 29% of rural counties not adjacent to a metropolitan county had one or more planners. Moreover, rural communities are not equipped to deal with major infrastructure expenses.21

If rural communities are to respond adequately to future climate changes, they will likely need help assessing their risks and vulnerabilities, prioritizing and coordinating projects, funding and allocating financial and human resources, and deploying information-sharing and decision support tools.

Impacts due to climate change will cross community and regional lines, making solutions dependent upon meaningful participation of numerous stakeholders from federal, state, local, and tribal governments, science and academia, the private sector, non-profit organizations, and the general public. Effective adaptation measures are closely tied to specific local conditions and needs and take into account existing social networks.22,23,24

Decisions regarding adaptation responses for both urban and rural populations can occur at various scales (federal, state, local, tribal, private sector, and individual) but need to take interdependencies into account. Many decisions that significantly affect rural communities may not be under the control of local governments or rural residents.

Timing is a critical aspect of adaptation and mitigation, so engaging rural residents early in decision processes about investments in public infrastructure, protection of shorelines, changes in insurance provision, or new management initiatives can influence behavior and choices in ways that enhance positive outcomes of adaptation and mitigation.

References

  1. Berkes, F., 2007: Understanding uncertainty and reducing vulnerability: Lessons from resilience thinking. Natural Hazards, 41, 283-295, doi:10.007/s11069-006-9036-7.

  2. Burkett, V., and M. Davidson, 2012: Coastal Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerabilities: A Technical Input to the 2013 National Climate Assessment. Island Press, 216 pp.

  3. CCSP, 2009: Thresholds of Climate Change in Ecosystems. A Report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. U.S. Climate Change Science Program Synthesis and Assessment Product 4.2. C.D. Allen, C. Birkeland, F.S. Chapin, III, P.M. Groffman, G.R. Guntenspergen, A.K. Knapp, A.D. McGuire, P.J. Mulholland, D.P.C. Peters, D.D. Roby, and G. Sugihara, Eds. U.S. Geological Survey, 157 pp. URL

  4. DOT, 2010: Freight Analysis Framework (Version 3) Data Tabulation Tool, Total Flows. U.S. Department of Transportation. URL

  5. ERS, 2003: Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. URL

  6. Galgano, F. A., and B. C. Douglas, 2000: Shoreline position prediction: Methods and errors. Environmental Geosciences, 7, 23-31, doi:10.1046/j.1526-0984.2000.71006.x.

  7. Hoyos, C. D., P. A. Agudelo, P. J. Webster, and J. A. Curry, 2006: Deconvolution of the factors contributing to the increase in global hurricane intensity. Science, 312, 94-97, doi:10.1126/science.1123560. URL

  8. HRSA, 2012: Defining the Rural Population. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration. URL

  9. Isserman, A. M., E. Feser, and D. E. Warren, 2009: Why some rural places prosper and others do not. International Regional Science Review, 32, 300-342, doi:10.1177/0160017609336090.

  10. Kraybill, D. S., and L. Lobao, 2001: The Emerging Roles of County Governments in Rural America: Findings from a Recent National Survey. 20. URL

  11. Kunkel, K. E., D. R. Easterling, K. Hubbard, and K. Redmond, 2009: 2009 update to data originally published in "Temporal variations in frost-free season in the United States: 1895–2000". Geophysical Research Letters, 31, L03201, doi:10.1029/2003GL018624. URL

  12. Lal, P., J. R. R. Alavalapati, and E. D. Mercer, 2011: Socio-economic impacts of climate change on rural United States. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, 16, 819-844, doi:10.1007/s11027-011-9295-9. URL

  13. Nelson, D. R., 2011: Adaptation and resilience: Responding to a changing climate. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 2, 113-120, doi:10.1002/wcc.91. URL

  14. Ostrom, E., 2009: A general framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems. Science, 325, 419-422, doi:10.1126/science.1172133. URL

  15. Peterson, T. C., P. A. Stott, and S. Herring, 2012: Explaining extreme events of 2011 from a climate perspective. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 93, 1041-1067, doi:10.1175/BAMS-D-12-00021.1. URL

  16. Pietrowsky, R. et al., 2012: Water Resources Sector Technical Input Report in Support of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, National Climate Assessment - 2013. 31 pp.

  17. Rygel, L., D. O’Sullivan, and B. Yarnal, 2006: A method for constructing a Social Vulnerability Index: An application to hurricane storm surges in a developed country. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, 11, 741-764, doi:10.1007/s11027-006-0265-6. URL

  18. Staudinger, M. D., N. B. Grimm, A. Staudt, S. L. Carter, S. F. Chapin, III, P. Kareiva, M. Ruckelshaus, and B. A. Stein, 2012: Impacts of Climate Change on Biodiversity, Ecosystems, and Ecosystem Services. Technical Input to the 2013 National Climate Assessment. 296 pp., U.S. Geological Survey, Reston, VA. URL

  19. U.S. Census Bureau, 2010: United States Census 2010. URL

  20. U.S. Census Bureau, 2012: 2010 Census Urban and Rural Classification and Urban Area Criteria. URL

  21. USDA, 2012: Atlas of Rural and Small-Town America. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. URL

  22. USDA, 2013: Atlas of Rural and Small-Town America. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. URL

  23. Westerling, A. L., H. G. Hidalgo, D. R. Cayan, and T. W. Swetnam, 2006: Warming and earlier spring increase western U.S. forest wildfire activity. Science, 313, 940-943, doi:10.1126/science.1128834.

  24. Wu, S. Y., B. Yarnal, and A. Fisher, 2002: Vulnerability of coastal communities to sea-level rise: A case study of Cape May County, New Jersey, USA. Climate Research, 22, 255-270, doi:10.3354/cr022255.

The National Climate Assessment summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States, now and in the future.

A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.

United States Global Change Research Program logo United States Global Change Research Program participating agency logos