climate change adaptation

Humpback Memories and Climate Change Research

By Aaron Ferster

Humpback whale breachingI was hooked the first time I saw a humpback whale leap out of the ocean. All that impossible bigness exploding through the waves, hanging in the air for a moment, and then crashing back down into the water. A cascade of sea mist and foam where a forty-ton animal just existed.

Within a few months of that first encounter I was a volunteer data collector on a whale watch boat; not long after that I was the ship’s first mate, devoting my remaining college summers to securing lines, swabbing the deck, and climbing to the roof of the wheelhouse to scan the horizon for the next sighting.

Why was I thinking about the whale watching days of my youth during the President’s recent climate change address? Because as President Obama talked about his Climate Change Action Plan and the need for innovation and low-carbon fuels, it reminded me that long before whales were a tourist attraction, for most people their primary value was as an energy source. Flames burning whale blubber and oil kept homes, businesses and streetlamps glowing long after dark. Early lighthouse beacons ran on the highly prized spermaceti oil of Moby Dick fame.

Back then, whaling was big business, the staple of the economy in coastal towns all up and down New England and elsewhere. The tide began to change when the light bulb and electricity came into favor, cheaper and more abundant than dwindling supplies of spermaceti.

When will the next generation of energy arrive? While the consequences are certainly more daunting and far reaching than centuries ago when energy was harvested with a harpoon, I liked hearing President Obama’s optimistic talk about the promise of American ingenuity and innovation being equal to the challenges of the day.

As an EPA science writer, I may be an easy mark for such talk, but I also have a front row seat to some of the engineers and scientists working on the research and technical solutions to address, mitigate, and adapt to climate change.

Some of that work is highlighted in the latest issue of our newsletter EPA Science Matters. The issue features stories on how Agency researchers and their partners are helping decision makers, communities, and individuals incorporate the latest science into strategies and actions designed to protect public human health and the environment in the face of a changing climate. I invite you to read the issue, and join the expanding conversation on climate change through this and other EPA blogs we have in the works about EPA climate research.

About the Author: Before joining EPA as a science writer, Aaron Ferster’s work experiences included first mate on a whale watch boat, assistant elephant trainer, and zoo exhibit writer.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Climate Change and Health: Lessons Learned from Older Americans

To continue the Agency’s efforts to expand the conversation on climate change, we are highlighting EPA climate change research with Science Matters articles. This post features research exploring the health effects of climate change and older Americans. 

Climate Change and Health: Lessons Learned from Older Americans
EPA researchers are exploring the links between climate change and health effects for older Americans. 

OldercouplestrollingClimate change is affecting a growing population of at-risk older Americans. Studies by EPA researchers and others find that seniors aged 65 and older are more vulnerable to hot temperatures and extreme weather events—effects which will become more frequent as the climate changes.

In a recent paper, “Climate Change and Older Americans: State of the Science” (Environ Health Perspect 121:15–22. 2013), EPA researchers reviewed the current “state of the science” about the links between climate change and health effects impacting older Americans.

The paper explores connections between what is expected to be an increase in the population of older Americans living in places relatively more affected by climate change. “Life expectancy has increased at the same time that we see a huge bubble of baby boomers headed into retirement. These demographic changes are happening even as the effects of climate change are becoming more widely recognized,” explains EPA economist and lead author Janet Gamble.

To assess the vulnerability of older Americans to climate change, the research team performed an extensive literature search.  From more than 400 citations identified, they selected nearly 100 papers to review that most closely addressed key terms describing characteristics of the older life stage; their vulnerability to climate-related impacts, and their overall health and well-being.

Older adults comprise 13% of the U.S. population today, but are expected to account for approximately 20% by 2040. They are also a diverse group, with differences in age, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, degree of community or family support, general health or pre-existing medical conditions, and disability. These differences ultimately determine the extent of older adults’ vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.

In addition, location matters.  “Older adults are retiring in areas, such as Florida, that experience a higher rate of extreme weather events,” notes Gamble, adding that more that 50% of older adults reside in only nine states, with Florida, California, New York, Texas, and Pennsylvania accounting for the top five.

Regions with higher levels of older adults, such as the five states mentioned above, are likely to be particularly at risk to changing precipitation patterns, tropical storms, flooding, and the urban heat island effect, a term describing the warming of urban areas relative to their rural surroundings due to the prevalence of buildings, roads, and other dark, heat-absorbing surfaces.

The report finds that older adults living in poverty or on fixed incomes are likely to experience greater exposure to some climate-related impacts, especially the effects of heat waves or hurricanes. Poverty is a primary contributor to social vulnerability, as financial status affects their ability to respond quickly and effectively. Older adults living in poverty can be more vulnerable to property damage and loss due to lack of insurance, limited personal finances, and poor credit worthiness.  In addition, older adults living in poverty may not have transportation to evacuate an area during an extreme weather event and may live in substandard housing, also increasing their risks.

The authors highlight a number of measures, called adaptations, that may address such vulnerability.

Such adaptations promote effective community responses to risks thought to be climate-related and may include: community support networks, subsidization of air conditioners, and community-based registries to help identify and reach those who require evacuation assistance. Similarly, planting trees or installing green roofs can reduce the urban heat island effect.

Identifying effective adaptation measures and outlining the best ways to implement them continue to be a challenge.Oldercoupletakecellphonepicture

When asked about next steps, Gamble states, “I think there is more work to be done in assessing the vulnerability of at-risk populations. As a first step, we need to communicate the climate risks experienced by older adults to decision makers, public health and safety officials, and caregivers and advocates of aging populations.  Also, in the near term, it may be possible to build on and adapt some of the response strategies developed for heat waves and hurricanes and apply them to the broader set of climate change impacts affecting older adults.”

By investigating the relationship between climate change stressors and vulnerability to at-risk life stages such as older Americans, EPA researchers are helping to inform communities and others so they can be better prepared to protect human health.

Learn More

Climate Change and Older Americans: State of the Science (Online abstract)

EPA Research: Climate Change and Health

Preparing for Extreme Heat

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.