After a four-year gap, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) resumed its issuance of climate change indicators reporting on Wednesday May 12, 2021. The newly released data, which used 54 separate indicators, provides the federal government’s most comprehensive and up-to-date public release of information to date and demonstrates that an ever-increasing warming trend world is making life more difficult in the United States. The report’s issuance is conveniently timed as the Biden administration is taking aggressive action to address the pollution challenges that contribute to global warming challenges.
In releasing the report, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan noted, “There is no small town, big city or rural community that is unaffected by the climate crisis. Americans are seeing and feeling the impacts up close, with increasing regularity.”
The EPA report tracks a wide variety of information, including, for example, Lyme disease, which is growing more prevalent in some states as a warming climate expands the regions where deer ticks can survive, to the growing drought in the Southwest that threatens the availability of drinking water and increases the likelihood of wildfires, but also reduces the ability to generate electricity from hydropower.
According to an early analysis of the report by the New York Times, the new data shows that temperatures are rising and that increase is accelerating. Since 1901, surface temperatures across the lower 48 states have increased by an average of 0.16 degrees Fahrenheit each decade; since the late 1970s, that rate has jumped to as much as half a degree per decade. The increase has been even more pronounced in Alaska, parts of which saw average temperatures rise more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1925. And it’s affecting the permafrost: At 14 of 15 sites, permafrost temperatures rose between 1978 and 2020. As surface temperatures have risen, heat waves have become more common. Since the 1960s, the frequency of heat waves in large U.S. cities has tripled, according to the new data, to six each year from two. And nights are becoming hotter, making it harder for plants, animals and people to cool down. Rising temperatures are affecting ice levels as well. The new data notes that the extent of Arctic sea ice cover in 2020 was the second-smallest on record. At the same time, oceans are becoming warmer, reaching a record in 2020. The combination of melting polar ice and rising water temperatures is causing sea levels to rise along the East Coast and Gulf Coast. In some places, the sea level relative to the land rose more than eight inches between 1960 and 2020. As seas rise, flooding is becoming more common. The number of days when water has inundated communities along the East and Gulf Coasts has increased and the rate of that flooding is quickening, the data show. According to the EPA report, at many locations, “floods are now at least five times more common than they were in the 1950s.”
The EPA report provides support for claims that rising temperatures are also making wildfires worse. Notably, the amount of land burned in the United States each year is increasing, which has resulted in an ever-increasing length of the wildfire season.
In addition to updating the metrics, the latest version of the EPA’s climate indicators adds new types of data. Included in the analysis is the surface area of glaciers in Montana’s Glacier National Park, which shrank by one-third between 1966 and 2015.
Environmental scientists will likely benefit from the additional, more comprehensive data presented by the EPA. Updating and expanding the federal government’s climate data will be relevant to further policy change in the days ahead.