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Wellness Corner July 2015 - Human Health Impacts from Climate Change

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Wellness Corner July 2015 - Human Health Impacts from Climate Change

by Dr. Gary Pace

The fact of climate change becomes more tangible each week. Some forecasters have been predicting these developments for years, but our human psyches and social institutions have been slow to accept and process the implications. “These changes are probably just natural cycles.” “Those disasters seem so far away. They probably won’t affect us.” Now with the drought dragging on, we have to recognize that there will be impacts close to home.

Let’s get real. What are the potential problems for human health in a significantly changed environment? Last month, we discussed some of the basic science behind climate change, and we mentioned the important conference in April at SSU that brought together local government leaders with scientific and non-profit experts on the climate. This month, we will explore potential impacts of climate instability in Sonoma County. 

Anticipated Environmental Changes in Sonoma County 

In a nutshell, the experts anticipate that our area will be hotter, drier, and with rising sea levels. 

1) Temperature increases. Computer models suggest Sonoma County’s usual 10 days a year above 93 degrees will be closer to 80 days by the close of this century. We have already experienced a 2-degree increase in winter temperatures, and a one-degree increase in summer. Some projections say the rise may go as high as 6 degrees. 

2) Redistribution of rainfall. While there is agreement that temperatures will rise, the effect on rainfall is less clear. Some models say there will be more rain, others a lot less. Likely we will see less predictability—dry periods interspersed with deluges—sort of like what we experienced last winter. Flooding will be more common, with some predictions being that the “100-year storm” will become an annual occurrence by 2100. Fire threats will be a big issue. 

3) Ocean changes. There will be significant sea level changes due to the melting of glaciers. Experts predict a 3-foot rise by end of century. While this will not drastically alter our landscape, it could be devastating when coupled with intermittent flooding. We are also witnessing a profound increase in ocean acidification that will radically alter the oceanic food web.

So, how will these changes impact us?  

Access to Water: We are already beginning to experience challenges as this essential resource becomes less available. Current approaches to allocating water will need to evolve.

Food Production:  With the increase in temperatures and the change in water supply, the crops we can grow will change. Food prices will likely climb significantly. Food from the ocean will become less plentiful.

Diseases: Vector/disease—a change in endemic diseases will probably be seen, with potentially more tick-borne and mosquito-borne illnesses.

Respiratory—expected increase in asthma and respiratory problems as the climate gets hotter and drier.

Disasters:  Fire, floods, and excessive heat exposure almost certainly will rise. There are only twenty-one ambulance systems in the county, and we can easily anticipate that they will become overstretched in trying to cover the increasing needs.

A major emphasis at the conference was that the problems will probably be greater in the poorer communities. As things get more difficult, the people with more resources may have some protection. Check out The Portrait of Sonoma County (online) to get a sense of the inequities in our area.

Conclusions: 

It seems that there are two main approaches to averting some of the problems we are considering: working to stop the production of greenhouse gases and adapting to the effects of the changes in climate. 

Fortunately, a growing movement aimed at keeping carbon reserves in the ground by developing alternative energy sources is gaining traction. Industrial agriculture, especially animals raised for food, is also starting to attract attention for its greenhouse gas production. Personal lifestyle change and larger political action will be essential to these prevention efforts.

Adaptation to the coming changes in our environment also seems important. In our area, we have many individuals and groups that are preparing for the future by planning for ways to cope with the changing conditions. In fact, in December, the White House recognized Sonoma County as one of 16 U.S. communities named as Climate Action Champions for Leadership on Climate Change.