Vulnerability to Climate Change: Hotspots in Georgia

Climate change could have significant impacts on metropolitan Atlanta as well as rural counties in southern Georgia. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Climate change could have significant impacts on metropolitan Atlanta as well as rural counties in southern Georgia. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Since the 1970s, the average temperature in the southeastern U.S. has risen, especially during the winter. The increased temperature has been accompanied by other changes: droughts have become more common, and severe storms are more frequent and extreme. “We wanted to determine how these changes in climate are affecting people in Georgia,” says U.S. Forest Service scientist Cassandra Johnson Gaither. The scientists also evaluated how climate change could continue to affect people in the future.

Johnson Gaither is a research social scientist at the Southern Research Station unit Integrating Human and Natural Systems, and coauthor of a study recently published in Applied Geography. The study was led by Marshall Shepherd, director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia (UGA) and Binita KC, former UGA graduate student.  The Forest Service provided funding for the study.

The scientists developed an index that integrates social, geographic, and climatological vulnerability. The study is one of the first to include both longer-term indicators of climate change as well as weather extremes such as floods, droughts, and heat waves. Although heat waves could become more common in the future, droughts and floods are currently the most frequent extreme weather events.

Simply because of their location, coastal counties are at risk of flooding due to storm surge and potential sea level rise in the future. In some of the most vulnerable counties, more than 50 percent of the land is in high-risk flood zones. Inland areas such as the Atlanta metropolitan area are also at risk of flooding because of the high amount of impervious surfaces such as roads and parking lots.

Metropolitan Atlanta counties and counties in southern Georgia, which are part of the larger, regional Black Belt, are also more socially vulnerable. Social vulnerability suggests that recovery after a climate disaster would be more challenging. Factors that contribute to social vulnerability include racial and ethnic identity, lack of education, language barriers, and a natural-resource based economy (such as agriculture or forestry). Poverty, commonly encountered in female-headed households, can also contribute. “A number of counties in Georgia’s Black Belt meet several of these criteria, and are quite socially vulnerable,” says Johnson Gaither.

Social vulnerability and climate change vulnerability can interact or exist independently. Climate change vulnerability – how severely communities are affected by climate related events – is lower in the southwestern parts of Georgia because extreme climatic events are not as common there.

In parts of southeastern Georgia, as well as the Atlanta metro area, both social and climate vulnerability are high, but contributing factors vary. In the rural farming communities of southwest Georgia, climatic conditions are becoming increasingly drier and warmer. However, in Atlanta, land cover change is accelerating, partly a result of population growth. Over the past decade, Georgia’s population – especially among Hispanic communities – has increased almost twice as fast as the national average, and much of this growth has been in the metropolitan Atlanta area.

“Our approach provides a basis for projecting vulnerability to climate change into the future,” says Johnson Gaither. “The study could also be expanded to help communities in other areas prepare for impacts from future changes in the climate.”

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For more information, email Cassandra Johnson Gaither at

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