your connection to The Boston Globe

Coastal areas face risks from warming

WASHINGTON -- Coastal communities around New England and the rest of the United States will be "increasingly stressed" by global warming in the coming decades and are especially vulnerable to widespread flooding from storm surges, according to a draft report released yesterday by an international group of scientists.

Authoring a chapter in a report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change , nearly two dozen scientists focused on climate change's potential impact on North America, predicting an increasing number of "weather-related extremes" including hurricanes, floods, droughts, heat waves, and wildfires.

The list of possible impacts "sounds like a recitation of biblical plagues: heat, drought, disease, insects, and rising seas," said Angela Anderson , vice president for climate programs at National Environmental Trust , an advocacy and education group.

The scientists said they were not only worried about sea level rise along the East Coast, but also about more ferocious storms and the accompanying surge of water ashore.

"It's the No. 1 vulnerability," said Cynthia Rosenzweig , director of the Climate Impacts Research Group at Goddard Institute for Space Studies .

While specialists could not say that yesterday's rare springtime northeaster was specifically related to global warming, Michael Oppenheimer , a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University, said that climate change will increase such storms in the future.

"This is the kind of thing you can expect in the years ahead," Oppenheimer said, referring to the storm Sunday and yesterday that caused flooding along the East Coast. "These storms are going to get more intense and happen more frequently."

Oppenheimer told reporters that the panel of scientists was all but certain that sea levels would rise, from 7 inches to nearly 2 feet during this century.

"That will cause a lot of problems along the coast," he said, referring to vanishing land and animal and plant habitat.

But he said the melting of the Greenland and west Antarctic ice sheets poses an even greater danger. He said that the melting of the Greenland ice sheet alone could cause the oceans to rise roughly 22 feet in total, though a catastrophe of that proportion is difficult to predict and could take hundreds or thousands of years.

This year, the intergovernmental warming panel organized by the United Nations has been releasing parts of its fourth update on assessing the state of knowledge on climate change. Earlier this year, the panel said there is greater than 90 percent certainty that humans are contributing to global warming.

Even though many scientists have said that global warming would hurt developing countries the most because they lack the means to adapt quickly, several scientists said yesterday that rich countries would face significant problems as well.

"None of us will escape the impacts of climate change," said Patricia Romero Lankao , one of the report's authors and a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a nonprofit group based in Boulder, Colo.

The newly released review also found that rising temperatures in the United States would diminish snow accumulations and increase water evaporation, threatening rivers, lakes, and other water sources. In the Great Lakes and major US river systems, lower water levels could have an impact on water quality, production of hydroelectric power, and relations with Canada.

Warming temperatures could also spur increases in respiratory illnesses, accelerate the spread of infectious diseases such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus, and produce more extended periods of high-temperature days .

John Donnelly can be reached at