It was Christmas Day, and Betsy Doughtie was hot.
The high reached 73 degrees on Dec. 25 — more than 10 degrees above normal — and Doughtie ran her air conditioner occasionally over the holiday season.
That wasn’t the only sign of the unseasonably warm weather. Doughtie, executive director of Hilton Head Island’s The Deep Well Project, saw her nonprofit organization make just nine payments on needy families’ electric bills that month, down from 22 a year earlier. Clients weren’t having to heat their homes as much, she said. Mother Nature did it for them.
The Lowcountry wasn’t baking alone.
Scientists reported in January that 2015 was the hottest year in recorded history, according to The New York Times.
Hilton Head’s 2015 average temperature was 68.4 degrees, two degrees above the normal average during the 30-year period from 1981-2010, according to AccuWeather data compiled by the Times.
The temperature in Beaufort averaged 68.9 degrees for 2015, or 1.6 degrees above normal. Figures for Bluffton were not listed.
While those bumps might go unnoticed by some, others warn they could be cause for concern.
“During the last 10,000 years or so, we’ve seen fluctuations in temperature,” said William Conner, a professor of forestry and environmental conservation at Clemson University’s Baruch Institute of Coastal Ecology and Forest Science in Georgetown. “But normally that fluctuation has been around 1 degree. But now we’re starting to see 2 degrees.
“When you see those changes, it can mean several things,” he said.
▪ Warmer waters could prove uninhabitable for certain organisms, which could impact the area’s seafood industry, among others, Conner said.
▪ Salt-water intrusion into coastal forests could increase. Those forests provide water-storage areas during rains. Losing them could mean increased flooding.
▪ Sea levels could continue to rise. Conner said the average sea rise along South Carolina’s coast is 3 millimeters a year.
The sea-level issue could hit some in Beaufort County particularly hard.
Frank Knapp, president of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce and founder of South Carolina Businesses Acting of Rising Seas (SCBARS), pointed to the July 2014 report — Suring Seas, compiled by Climate Central — which shows more than $5 billion in property, and more than 17,000 people and 12,000 homes in the county, would be threatened by a four-foot flood. One-in-four homes on Hilton Head would be at risk.
Chris Marsh, executive director of the Lowcountry Institute in Okatie, said warming temperatures could also bring invasive species to the area. One of them, the kudzu-like Japanese climbing fern, is already here. Marsh also cited more obvious effects, such as a cluster of live oaks off U.S. 17 near Gardens Corner killed by salt water intrusion 24 miles from the coast.
Lili Coleman, executive director of Bluffton Self Help, said her organization paid out roughly $13,000 in utilities assistance to local families in 2015, up from the nearly $8,000 it paid the year before.
“They come to us when they can’t pay their utility bills,” Coleman said. “They didn’t budget for that heat wave.”