Imagine winters without a hard frost. Cotton fields spread over rural Baltimore County. Wild hogs munching corn on the Eastern Shore.
Maryland just won’t be the same in 60 years, and a new study predicts its climate will come to resemble someplace nearly 1,000 miles away, somewhere hotter and wetter and thick with mosquitoes. Welcome to Mississippi, y’all.
Professor Matt Fitzpatrick at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science spent years developing the methods behind the study he published in February in the journal “Nature Communications.” He partnered with Robert Dunn, an ecologist at North Carolina State University, to match cities with their climate counterparts in 2080.
The average U.S. city will come to resemble climates more than 500 miles away, often to the south and west, the researchers found.
“Cities in the northeast will tend to feel more like the humid subtropical climates typical to parts of the Midwest or Southeastern U.S.,” they wrote. “Climates of western cities are expected to become more like those of the desert.”
The latest edition of a report on predicted climate change impacts released by the Trump administration on Friday says Maryland is already seeing some effects of rising global temperatures: More floods, shorter winters and disappearing marshes.
In November, the Trump administration released the fourth National Climate Assessment, which found Maryland faces shorter winters within 30 years. By 2040, the last freeze of spring will come two or three weeks earlier. The first freeze of fall will come two or three weeks later. The federal assessment also said rising sea levels risk drowning marshes and flooding low-lying areas like the Annapolis City Dock. Average temperatures could rise 4 or 5 degrees by 2050, the assessment found.
Should folks worry about a few degrees? That’s where Fitzpatrick and Dunn come in. The pair were searching for a way to help the public relate to climate change.
“People hear numbers like 1.5 degrees Celsius and they think, well, what’s the big deal?” Fitzpatrick said.
His study has drawn attention from around the country. Newspapers from San Francisco to Philadelphia have reported his findings: San Francisco would feel like Los Angeles; Philadelphia like Memphis, Tenn. Most cities, he said, will see winter become about 8 to 10 degrees warmer.
The researchers analyzed 540 cities and their surroundings — everywhere from Olympia, Wash., to Laredo, Texas — home to three-quarters of Americans. Fitzpatrick gathered historical weather data for each city from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. He collected high and low temperatures and precipitation during all four seasons.
Then he turned to climate models to forecast these figures for 2080 and match present-day cities with their future counterparts. For example, Pittsburgh is expected to feel like northeast Arkansas, which will feel like areas near Houston. South Texas will feel like Mexico.
“It’s pretty helpful messaging,” said Donald Boesch, a professor of marine science and former president of the environmental science center.
More than a decade ago, Boesch and other researchers produced a 92-page report on climate change in Maryland that found temperatures in the Chesapeake Bay could climb as high in future summers as the waters of South Florida.
“One or two degrees [Celsius], it doesn't sound like much to people,” Boesch said, “so I think they need to have something they can wrap their minds around.”
Fitzpatrick compiled two sets of maps. On the first, he matched cities with their 2080 counterpart if greenhouse gas emissions continue at current levels. Then he mapped them all again under emission levels reduced in accordance with the Paris climate agreement. President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the agreement.
Without reduced emissions, Fitzpatrick predicts Baltimore will feel like the little town of Cleveland in the Mississippi Delta. Named for President Grover Cleveland, town officials call their home the musical birthplace of the blues.
So if Baltimore’s future lies there, what’s Cleveland, Mississippi like?
“Our summers are brutal,” said Billy Nowell, mayor of Cleveland for the past decade. “We have mild winters. If it gets below 25, people are really cold here. It doesn’t snow but say an inch or two every other year.”
The mild winters are 9 degrees warmer and 58 percent wetter than in Baltimore. The Mississippi town is drenched by 10 more inches of rain annually than Baltimore. (So not quite as wet as last year in Central Maryland, when we got two feet more than normal.)
Cleveland — population 13,000 — is the sort of small town where most every building has air conditioning, where hats are for summertime and people have a natural talent at finding shade. Families pay taxes for their mosquito spraying just like their trash collection.
“You can walk outside in an area that doesn’t have mosquito control and it’s like you’re almost walking through sprinkling rain because you can feel them,” said Meg McGee, who works in the chamber of commerce. “They’re that thick.”
Farmers there are already planting corn, cotton and soybeans. To Cleveland families, the holidays are snowy only in movies.
“Can’t remember how many years it’s been since I’ve seen a white Christmas,” the mayor said.
Of course, that Mississippi weather would bring some perks. Spring weather arrives by March — none of that “in like a lion” business — bringing temperature in the 70s, blue skies, a slight breeze. By now, the oak trees are budding. The roses, daffodils and tulips have bloomed. Soon enough will come azaleas.
“I might keep a plant for three or four winters before it gets cold enough to die,” McGee said.
New climate brings new plants and animals, too. Would Maryland farmers try cotton? Would flamingos inhabit the Eastern Shore marshes? Would gators prowl the Chesapeake?
“That’s one of the implications, yes,” Fitzpatrick said. “If that climate comes here, then they should come with it eventually.”
A Chesapeake alligator, however, would be a long way off, he says. “That’s totally foreseeable in the scale of centuries.”
If Maryland will feel like the South, what city will get Baltimore’s lovely crisp falls and warm rainy springs?