'Heat keeps getting worse': Climate data predicts dangerous summers in North Carolina by 2050

ByTom George and Maggie Green WTVD logo
Thursday, August 17, 2023
Climate data predicts dangerous summers in North Carolina by 2050
We have seen it firsthand this summer - temperatures getting hotter, creating dangerous conditions here in North Carolina.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- We have seen it firsthand this summer - temperatures getting hotter, creating dangerous conditions here in North Carolina.

A new ABC11 analysis of climate data shows that soon these kinds of records we're seeing now will eventually become the norm. By 2050, a summer in North Carolina will look much different and it won't just be uncomfortable, it will also affect some of the biggest industries in the state.

"It makes me sad you can't grow anything like you used to anymore," said Larry Lane.

Lane has 4 acres of land in Dudley where he grows watermelon and corn. He sells produce from his truck in downtown Goldsboro.

"They know me as the Watermelon man," he said. But now, the watermelon man's supply is dwindling.

What would normally be a crop of 4,000 is now down to just 1,000. Lane estimates he can only sustain his crop for another 2 or 3 years.

He said the main issue has been the brutal heat, creating conditions making it harder for his crop to grow.

According to new data from the First Street Foundation, by 2050, 13 central North Carolina counties will max out at a brutal 125-degree heat index including Durham, Orange, Harnett, Moore, Halifax, Sampson, Northampton, Cumberland, Nash, Hoke, Edgecombe, Wayne, and Wilson.

And it's not just the intensity of the heat - data shows it will stay hotter for longer.

Right now, most central North Carolina counties average around 3 weeks worth a year of 100-degree heat index or hotter - soon that will climb to a month or longer, with 31 days annually in Wake County, 37 days in Durham and Orange counties, and 45 days in Cumberland County.

One of the hardest-hit areas in the state is Wayne County, whereby 2050, they're expected to see 49 days each year with a blistering heat index of 100 degrees or higher, and that could have a huge impact on the county's main industry - agriculture.

The heat is already impacting the county's resources.

ALSO SEE: Look up how climate change is forecast to impact your neighborhood

"Call volumes for all of our first responders, all of our resources have gone up year after year, and so it's making sure that we're prepared long range and can take care of residents when they need it," said Joel Gillie, public information officer for Wayne County.

While Wayne County's comprehensive plan for the next 15 years doesn't specifically mention heat, they say they are focused on funding emergency services and also making sure as Wayne County's population booms, new development doesn't encroach on agricultural land.

"We see a lot of farmland going away. And so that's one thing that our board of commissioners is big into is making sure we're protecting that farmland and not paving over everything in the county," Gillie said.

The heat is also affecting those working on the front lines of that farmland.

In nearby Mount Olive, at a resource center for farm workers, they have a posted list of warning signs for heat stroke in the field.

Elizabeth Cantu worked in the fields as a teenager and is now a healthcare worker assisting migrant farm workers dealing with the same conditions.

"What I always tell them is yes we can be brave.. but our health has to come first... If something happens to us at work.. who's going to be there for our families," Cantu said.

Recently, they've seen more cases of farm workers getting sick from heat, and even having to go to the hospital. But they said oftentimes people power through in dangerous conditions so they don't lose out on work.

"The heat keeps getting worse, and the fact is if it keeps going like that and there aren't more protections for workers, eventually they won't want to come and work anymore," says Vidal Lormendez, who also went from working the fields to working in as a community health worker.

It's all creating an uncertain future. One day, the climate might mean the watermelon man might have to instead grow orange or grapefruit. For now, Lane says he's not giving up.

"We'll keep trying every year as long as we're alive we'll try, you know that. you get the fever when you been in it so long," Lane said.

The data also found that summer heat waves themselves will last longer in North Carolina -- going from about 3-5 days at a time now, to a week at a time in 2050.