Hot Time in the City

In Georgia, Atlanta residents could be hit hardest by climate change

View of downtown Atlanta. Photo by Daniel Mayer, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
View of downtown Atlanta. Photo by Daniel Mayer, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In Georgia, U.S. Forest Service scientists and cooperators are mapping out climate change vulnerability at the county level. Their results suggest that people who live in metro Atlanta are at most risk of disruptions from the rising temperatures and extreme weather events of recent decades — and that this vulnerability could persist well into the future.

Cassandra Johnson Gaither, project leader of the Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) Integrating Human and Natural Systems unit, and cooperators at the University of Georgia (UGA) are developing a county-level index of climate vulnerability for the state of Georgia. The project is unique in using not only climate and extreme weather information but also demographic data and the results of qualitative interviews to map out and better understand vulnerability to the effects of climate change.

With funding from SRS, Binita KC , a PhD student in the UGA Department of Geography, worked with her advisor, UGA Atmospheric Sciences Program Director Marshall Shepherd  to map climate variables such as temperature and precipitation levels by county. In the course of plotting climate data recorded over 40 years, KC showed that the climate of Georgia is getting hotter and drier, especially over the last eight years. Her data also showed that regions of Georgia, particularly metro Atlanta, have also experienced more extreme weather events such as floods and drought over the past 30 to 40 years.

KC then added demographic information that indicates social vulnerability based on well-known work by Susan Cutter at the University of South Carolina. This included data on poverty, race, percentages of the population over 65 or under five, and the number of people who work in heat-exposed occupations such as forestry and fishing. Pairing demographic data with climate data resulted in maps that show where combined climate and social risks are the highest.

Counties in metro Atlanta showed up as most vulnerable to climate change, but coastal communities such as those around Savannah may also be at high risk. KC discovered this when she modified her index to take into account how much land in a county is susceptible to flooding or covered in impervious surfaces such as concrete. Both of these factors affect how vulnerable coastal communities will be to storms and sea level rise. Forthcoming work will examine future climate vulnerability in those counties using climate model projections and demographic trends.

Meanwhile SRS researchers Johnson Gaither and John Schelhas, research forester with the unit, and cooperators from UGAs Center for Integrative Conservation Research (Dave Himmelfarb, Sarah Hitchner, and Kate Dunbar) explored resident understandings of social vulnerability and resilience to climate change in two areas of metro Atlanta and an adjacent rural county. The researchers used open-ended, ethnographic methodologies that involved interviewing people to understand better how climate and social risks play out on the ground.

The three communities selected for interviews differ in their population makeup: the Cascade community close to downtown is majority African American, while a second community in Norcross is majority Latino and the third rural community in Jasper County majority Anglo American.

The researchers found that opinions about climate change were similar in the first two communities, where most people agreed that climate change presented a serious threat, while the idea of climate change met with more resistance in the rural majority Anglo American community in Jasper County.

“People in all sites reported observing similar variations in weather and climate, but their interpretation of these events were influenced by pre-existing cultural narratives and conflicts,” says Johnson Gaither. “Belief in climate change was uniformly strong in the first two communities, while Jasper County was split between climate change believers and skeptics. Climate narratives influence mitigation and adaptation behaviors, and understanding local narratives is a key element of preparedness and resilience.”

The research team is using the qualitative data from the interviews to form a detailed comparison of climate change attitudes, opinions and actions across the three sites. In an analysis specific to Atlantas Cascade community, Johnson Gaither examined features such as public transportation access, neighborhood walkability, green space access, and the prevalence of crime to see if these place-based features affect the ability or willingness of residents to take actions that might mitigate climate change. The results of both studies will be published later this year.

Read a recent article about the project in the Athens Banner-Herald.

For more information, email Cassandra Johnson Gaither at cjohnson09@fs.fed.us .

Access the latest publications by SRS scientists.

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