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Fastest-warming cities in the U.S.

  • Fastest-warming cities in the U.S.

    Human-caused climate change can trace its origins to the industrial revolution, but most warming has occurred since the occurrence of the first Earth Day in 1970, according to Climate Central. This warming happens at different rates in different places, but just about every area on the planet is warming. So far, Earth has warmed 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) since the late 1800s, with the United States warming between 1.3 and 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit. Out of 242 U.S. cities that Climate Central examined in its "American Warming" report, only six showed either no change or cooler average temperatures since 1970.

    To determine the fastest-warming cities in the country, Stacker consulted this April 2019 report by Climate Central, a nonprofit news organization that compiles research and helps other news outlets report on climate change. In this study, Climate Central ranked 49 states and 242 metro areas according to their average warming between 1970 and 2018, with data derived from the National Centers for Environmental Information. The top 50 metro areas are listed here, with the average state temperature changes included for context.

    Scientists attribute warming to greenhouse gases fed into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels. These heat-trapping gases mix with atmospheric factors and local geography to warm some areas more than others. For example, University of Montana study published in 2015 found that forest canopies can buffer the warming effects of greenhouse gases, keeping an area cooler than it would be otherwise.

    In cities, an urban heat island effect helps make the city hotter than surrounding areas. Buildings and pavement made of dark, impervious materials like asphalt and brick absorb heat during the day, keeping the city warm longer—known as urban heat islands. Cities also have less plant life than surrounding areas, and miss out on the cooling properties of greenery. The number of people and vehicles in the city further adds to the heat, creating an area noticeably warmer than nearby suburban and rural regions. But, in some cases, scientists aren't sure why one area is warmer than another.

    If the country does nothing to curb the warming trend, cities will continue to get hotter, threatening the health of residents. Some regions will become more humid as the temperatures rise, providing a longer summer season for disease-carrying insects. Cities will see more heat waves, and possibly more heat-related illnesses and deaths, according to research from Desert Research Institute, Nevada State College, and Universidad de Las Americas Puebla, among other studies. 

    Read on to see which cities are warming fastest, and what—if anything—officials are doing about it.

    You may also like: 30 ways extreme weather affects our food

  • #50. Piedmont Triad, NC

    - Temperature change 1970-2018: 3.08° F
    - Average temperature change in the state: 2.11° F (#14 slowest-warming state)

    The cities of Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point make up this region in central North Carolina. In the Piedmont Triad, urban areas are growing, likely expanding the heat island effects. The Piedmont Triad Regional Council has a plan for climate adaptation, and has published a report detailing short- and long-term responses to relevant events, including heat waves. This is vital for residents, as the region is home to North Carolina's largest elderly population, which, along with infants, is more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses.

    [Pictured: Winston-Salem, N.C.—One of the three major parts that consist of the Piedmont Triad.]

  • #49. Louisville, KY

    - Temperature change 1970-2018: 3.09° F
    - Average temperature change in the state: 2.31° F (#23 slowest-warming state)

    Louisville residents have already experienced more days per year topping 90 degrees and the three wettest years on record in the past decade, according to a May 2019 report by the Geos Institute. The minimum yearly temperature has jumped by 5.5 degrees since 1990. Kentucky's largest city has taken some steps to address climate change, committing to reduce emissions 80% by 2050.

  • #48. Birmingham area, AL

    - Temperature change 1970-2018: 3.10° F
    - Average temperature change in the state: 1.97° F (#6 slowest-warming state)

    This urban heat island hasn't done much to address the effects of climate change, despite seeing longer and more extreme heat waves than the rest of the United States. The Montgomery Advertiser reports that state leaders are not addressing climate change, either. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' Coastal Comprehensive Plan hints at building resilience to climate change's effects, but the state lacks a plan directly tackling the challenge.

  • #47. Grand Rapids area, MI

    - Temperature change 1970-2018: 3.10° F
    - Average temperature change in the state: 2.69° F (#19 fastest-warming state)

    In April 2013, residents of Grand Rapids caught a glimpse of what their future might hold. That year, the Grand River flooded Grand Rapids and surrounding areas, which an August 2016 report by the Environmental Protection Agency says shows that the city is vulnerable to significant floods. The same year, residents endured extreme heat waves during the summer. Experts predict that these events will become more common as greenhouse gases are fed into the atmosphere and the climate continues to change.

    Grand Rapids is one of over 400 U.S. cities confronting its role in climate change by signing on to the Compact of Mayors, upholding the United Nations’ Paris Agreement to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Grand Rapids also has taken other measures to mitigate warming. To reduce the urban heat island effect, the city is aiming for a 40% tree canopy cover goal. As of April 2019, the city just needed 5.4% more cover to meet its goal.

  • #46. Atlanta, GA

    - Temperature change 1970-2018: 3.12° F
    - Average temperature change in the state: 1.89° F (#2 slowest-warming state)

    This year, Atlanta has experienced over 80 days reaching at least 90 degrees (well above its typical 37 days a year). By 2050, with no action on climate change, the Union of Concerned Scientists says this would constitute a cool year. In a business-as-usual greenhouse gas emissions scenario, Atlanta is projected to average 102 days per year with a heat index, or “feels like” temperature, above 90 degrees. 

    While the city is willing to work on climate change, state politics might get in the way. This past March, the Atlanta City Council adopted a climate action plan, but the utility Georgia Power has frustrated the council's goals to shift the city toward renewable energy. Georgia Power representatives have said that because of state regulations, their priority must be cost for customers, and unless renewables become cheaper, they'll continue to rely on natural gas.

  • #45. Atlantic City, NJ

    - Temperature change 1970-2018: 3.12° F
    - Average temperature change in the state: 3.00° F (#6 fastest-warming state)

    Atlantic City is leading New Jersey in warming. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, New Jersey’s state climatologist David Robinson attributes the state’s higher sea levels and Atlantic City’s sunny-day floods (flooding from unusually high tides) to the rise in temperature. The state is taking steps to better prepare for these events and to prevent them, such as by restoring beaches and putting caps on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. New Jersey is also a member of the U.S. Climate alliance, a coalition of states committed to meeting the Paris Agreement goals.

  • #44. Prescott, AZ

    - Temperature change 1970-2018: 3.14° F
    - Average temperature change in the state: 3.23° F (#3 fastest-warming state)

    Prescott is in one of the fastest-warming states, and one of four Arizona cities that made this list. Located in the Bradshaw Mountains, Prescott typically experiences warm summers, cool winters and moderate humidity. Prescott is warming slower than the rest of the state, but still experiences an urban heat island effect that elevates its temperatures above those of more rural surroundings.

  • #43. Wichita Area, KS

    - Temperature change 1970-2018: 3.16° F
    - Average temperature change in the state: 2.09° F (#13 slowest-warming state)

    In Wichita, a longer mosquito season has accompanied the rise in heat and humidity, threatening public health. The heat is also producing more ground-level ozone, which can lead to respiratory issues in humans. Wichita's urban heat island effect has led to 15 more days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit each year compared to rural areas, on average (since 1973). However, it doesn’t appear that Wichita or the state has assessed its vulnerability to climate change or adopted a plan to adapt to these changes.

  • #42. Fargo, ND

    - Temperature change 1970-2018: 3.21° F
    - Average temperature change in the state: 1.97° F (#5 slowest-warming state)

    Fargo residents with seasonal allergies may already be noticing the heat. Since 1995, the city's mosquito season has also increased: the season is now 67 days on average per year since 2006 compared with 40 days on average each year from 1980 to 1989.

    With the "Green Fargo" initiative, local government is taking steps toward creating a more environmentally friendly city. To reduce emissions, city officials have added hybrid metro buses to the current fleet and are using blended biodiesel fuel. The Department of Solid Waste now uses wind and solar power, and harnesses the methane gas from decomposing garbage to create electricity.

  • #41. Mankato, MN

    - Temperature change 1970-2018: 3.22° F
    - Average temperature change in the state: 2.67° F (#20 fastest-warming state)

    As a city, the urban heat island effect is likely contributing to Mankato’s faster warming than the rest of Minnesota. While the local government has sustainability initiatives, including efforts to reduce driving and urban sprawl that could reduce the city’s emissions, these initiatives aren’t specifically focused on combating climate change.

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