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GREEN MOUNTAIN STATE

What part of the US is safest from climate change?

A man in a red coat skis down a snowy mountain, with forest and mountain range in the background
REUTERS/Mike Segar
Today's skiing paradise could be tomorrow's climate oasis?
  • Camille Squires
By Camille Squires

Cities reporter

Published Last updated on

The storms, floods, heat, and fires that have ravaged the US in 2021 have made the ongoing climate crisis feel especially acute for citizens across the country.  And the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report indicates the escalating risks the world faces as the climate warms. In such a grim future scenario, where will be as safe and habitable as today?

Researchers looked at multiple factors from sea level rise to heat to assess the least risky place to live in the US as the climate warms. Nowhere will escape climate change unscathed. Yet one region emerged well ahead of the rest: the northeastern US.

Of the 10 lowest risk counties, six were located in Vermont, and most of the remaining were in northeastern states like Maine and New York, according to a study by ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine. Data on relative risk for US counties threatened by climate change was compiled from data collected by the Rhodium Group, an independent data-analytics firm, as well as several academic studies.

  • Lamoille County, Vermont
  • Orange County, Vermont
  • Franklin County, Vermont
  • Essex County, Vermont
  • Piscataquis County, Maine
  • Orleans County, Vermont
  • Grand Isle County, Vermont
  • Hamilton County, New York
  • Franklin County, Maine
  • Aroostook County, Maine

The study accounted for how six factors—heat, wet bulb temperatures, sea level rise, crop yield, fires, and economic damage—combined to impact people and economies. These safest areas were expected to have the lowest combined impacts by mid-century. Temperatures, fires, and sea-level rise will drive much of the damage. Rising temperatures mean searing heat and humidity will shift the zone of moderate climate and farmable land to the north. Places like Arizona and Texas are expected to sizzle under combined heat and humidity, known as “wet bulb” temperatures, which make it nearly impossible for the human body to cool itself for part of the year.  Sea level rise on the coasts and fires in the US West, mean inland states in the Northeast become prime locations.

Vermont’s natural advantages

Overall, Vermont counties were predicted to have relatively little damage to local economies as a result of climate change. Because of its geographic location, Vermont’s long cold winters and mild summers mean it faces some of the lowest risks from dangerous temperatures and humidity. In fact, colder, wealthier economies like those in Vermont stand to benefit from warming, according to Hannah Hess, who led the Rhodium Group research that this report draws from.

Annual temperatures in the state currently range between 33ºF (0.5º C) and 55ºF (13º C). As the climate warms, fewer cold days in winter can improve health and infrastructure, and lower energy costs, creating a net positive effect on the economy, Hess says. Vermont’s geography also means the state, which is 75% forested (pdf),  is at low risk of wildfire and declining crop yields. While agricultural yields are likely to drop precipitously in the southern US, Vermont is experiencing warmer summers and longer growing seasons benefiting some crops (although some like maple syrup are declining as temperatures rise).

Local leaders are taking action now to adapt to the future

State and local leaders in Vermont are also taking action now to ensure the state can withstand the myriad challenges of climate change. The most immediate threat are extreme weather events. The remnants of Tropical Storm Irene  (downgraded from a hurricane) in 2011 caused massive flooding, six deaths, and $700 million in damages to roads, bridges, and infrastructure.

In response, the state government has take action to make the built environment more resilient by adjusting it to changing climate conditions.  The government has created new construction standards for floodplains, and restored natural wetlands to serve as a natural barrier for overflowing rivers.

“Coming out of the storm really changed our perspective on the importance of resilient infrastructure,” said Julie Moore, the state secretary of natural resources. “The goal is to avoid future conflicts [between people and the river].”

Work is being done in the agriculture sector,  to prepare farmers for “a full range of conditions” Moore says. This has research to help farmers improve soil health and its ability to hold water, and also an initiative to study the potential impacts of soil carbon sequestration. Local groups are also working to fortify the state’s maple sugaring industry against climate change by encouraging producers to protect forest diversity.

Like many other states and localities, Vermont has developed a climate action plan, which includes efforts to reduce carbon emissions and change energy sources away from fossil fuels. The plan also includes these adaptive measures like wetland restoration and informing residents about tick-borne illness to ready residents for climactic changes that are already here.

“There will always be a bigger flood, there will always be a more intense storm, so none of these solutions are perfect,” Moore says. “But we’re trying to take advantage of opportunities to limit future damage.”

Correction (Sept. 14): A previous version incorrectly stated that seven of the 10 safest counties were located in Vermont and listed them incorrectly. Six of the 10 are Vermont, with the remaining counties in Maine and New York. 

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