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Researchers Discuss How Climate Change Impacts Health in Rural Mountain Communities – Appalachian Voices
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Researchers Discuss How Climate Change Impacts Health in Rural Mountain Communities – Appalachian Voices

Researchers Discuss How Climate Change Impacts Health in Rural Mountain Communities – Appalachian Voices


By Cameron Stuart

Appalachian State faculty member Christine Hendren discusses the work of Appalachian State University’s Research Institute for Environment, Energy and Economics to begin the event, joined by fellow App State colleagues Maggie Sugg and Gary McCullough. Photo by Maggie Sugg

North Carolina will likely heat up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit if the current greenhouse gas emissions rate is not reduced.

This finding was among many discussed at the Climate Change and Health in Rural Mountain Environments collaborative workshops April 8 at Appalachian State University.

The workshop was designed to “identify research needs and priorities for our region at the intersection of climate and health for rural mountain environments,” according to the university’s Website.

The event started with four speakers who discussed specific climate change impacts on rural mountain communities. These included heat-related diseases, vector borne illnesses, mental health, maternal and national scientific assessments.

Researchers and faculty are divided into smaller groups to discuss issues in western North Carolina and the Appalachian Region. They will compile their data and findings into a journal article submission in order to identify the most important research and funding options.

Topics covered include reaching vulnerable populations, environmental changes, access to healthcare during weather disasters and mental health support.
Environmental Impacts: Warming, Flooding

According to Kathie Dello (state climatologist and director, North Carolina State Climate Office), North Carolina has experienced a 1 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature since 1901. The planet has seen an overall increase of 2 degrees. This warming has not been caused by rising daytime temperatures.

“If we’re worried about rural health and we’re worried about exposure to heat, we’re certainly going to think about those really hot North Carolina days,” Dello said. But, she added, “Our warming trend, that 1 degree Fahrenheit those past few decades, are really dominated by the nighttime temperatures.”

Warmer nights pose a risk, particularly in mountain and rural areas where crops are dependent on lower temperatures and limited access to air conditioning. Due to the increased heat-related mortality of outdoor workers, Dello estimates that there has been a 6% drop in hours spent in Southeast outdoor jobs.

During her lecture, Dello showed various graphics from Climate ToolboxThe website, which visualizes various climate-related projects.

Health Impacts: Disease

Brian Byrd, University of Western Carolina Environmental Health Professor, discussed the importance to prepare for an increase in vector-borne disease in rural and mountain areas, particularly tick-borne diseases.

Western North Carolina is more prone to tick-borne illness than the mosquito-borne disease. Many of the most common tick diseases like Rocky Mountain spotted flu and Lyme disease are bacterial and can be treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics are not effective for mosquito diseases such as West Nile virus, La Crosse encephalitis virus, and West Nile virus.

The La Crosse encephalitisAccording to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, virus is transmitted via mosquitoes and ticks. ArticleBy Byrd. Although it is uncommon, this disease mainly affects adolescents. There is no vaccine. This makes prevention efforts even more important.

“The challenge is not to overestimate risk and not to minimize risk,” Byrd says. “I’m not trying to fear-monger about this mosquito-borne disease. It’s very rare but it is something, if we can empower people to know a little more about it, there’s a good chance they can do something to reduce their own risk.”

Byrd suggested two strategies for combating this rise in vector-borne diseases. First, clear your backyard debris. This has a similar risk to forest-borne diseases. Second, people have many tools that can help them make informed choices about their personal protection. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Find the repellant that is right for youThis toolbox allows people the ability to determine the most effective repellent according to their own risks and other factors.

Climate change also impacts rates of vector-borne diseases in ways that aren’t immediately apparent. Byrd clarifies that there is no evidence that increased rainfall causes more mosquito diseases. Instead, limited water supplies during droughts force a wider variety of species to congregate in closer proximity at the same water sources, spreading diseases – especially to birds that can carry those viruses longer distances.

“Building Healthcare Access Security During Weather Disasters in Rural Mountain Environments” was one of the seven themes discussed during the event’s workshop portion. Maggie Sugg. Photo

Health Impacts: Mental & Maternity Health

Maggie Sugg, Appalachian State, discussed how climate change affects maternal and mental health. Sugg, a geography-planning associate professor, hosted the event.

“I like to think of climate change as a threat multiplier,” Sugg said. “It takes those health disparities and really amplifies them, and in rural communities we have really unique health disparities, and so climate change is taking these unique vulnerabilities, these threats, and amplifying them.”

Sugg explained that mental health is often an indirect effect of climate change, such as the negative mental health implications from losing one’s home in a large-scale flood.

Sugg found that teens who used a crisis texting line for adolescents experienced a 15% increase in texts, and a 17% rise in suicidal thoughts during the post-Hurricane Florence storm period.

Although the cause of this correlation is not known, some regions in the U.S. showed a correlation with higher temperatures and an increase suicide rates. According to Sugg this highlights the importance of grants for research and local studies.

“There’s a lot of studies at the national level talking about climate and health interactions,” Sugg says. “But there’s nothing particular to our area and nothing that really shows us what are the environmental changes for our area.”

Public green spaces are a key environmental factor that can have a positive impact on mental health, especially in rural communities. Regional studies in the Southeast showed that green spaces can reduce near-miss deaths in pregnant women, especially Black women. The phrase “near-miss” refers to a woman who survived a complication during either pregnancy or childbirth, according to the National Library of Medicine.

A South Carolina study found that maternal exposure to floods, especially during the second trimester, led to a 2.43 increase of near-miss mortality rates.

Following the lectures, faculty were divided in seven groups to discuss solutions to climate change-related problems. Each group’s results will be published in a publication to highlight grant and research needs. Maggie Sugg

Scientific Assessments of National Implications

Allison Crimmins was the final speaker of the event. She discussed the effects of climate change on mental health, disease, and environmental risks at the federal level. These findings and many others will be published in a forthcoming publication. Fifth National Climate Assessment.

Crimmins stated that the NCA5 themes include environmental justice, compounding effect and hope. Compounding effects are “events where more than one hazard interact and cause multiplicatively destructive consequences,” according to the Yale School of the Environment.

One of Crimmins’ examples of this concerned compounding climate, economic and social stressors. There is overlap in rural communities suffering from persistent poverty as well as areas that will likely see an increase need for cooling and air conditioning due to climate changes.

“I can’t tell you the prettiest picture that things are all great,” Crimmins says. “We are facing a lot of threats, but I don’t think we’ve ever been as prepared as we are now either. So I think one of the things that I’m picking up as I’m reading is just how many tools we have, how many communities are already taking actions, how far along the path of mitigation and adaptation we already are.”

The workshop’s findings will be published in a journal paper. The publication of the NCA5 is planned for 2023.


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