Introduction to Climate Change

Climate change is the long-term shift in average weather conditions. Contemporary climate change (observed changes in Earth’s atmosphere since the mid-20th century) refers to the anthropogenically-altered (human-caused) shifts in recent global climate patterns.

Why is Earth’s Climate Changing?

Earth’s climate has always fluctuated based on ocean patterns, volcanic activity, changes in the Earth’s orbit, and variations in the Sun’s energy. Since the start of the industrial revolution in the late 1700s, the combustion of fossil fuels such as coal, gas, and oil have resulted in tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) accumulating in the atmosphere. GHGs create the natural greenhouse effect, which traps heat at the Earth’s surface and is essential for life. However, the sheer volume of GHGs that have been emitted in the last 200 years have dramatically enhanced the natural greenhouse effect. Today, global CO2 levels are higher than any time in the last 850,000 years.

Visualization of natural versus human enhanced greenhouse effect, created by Will Elder, NPS
Credit: Will Elder, US National Park Service

Left - Naturally occurring greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O)—normally trap some of the sun’s heat, keeping the planet from freezing.

Right - Human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, are increasing greenhouse gas levels, leading to an enhanced greenhouse effect. The result is global warming and unprecedented rates of climate change.

Today’s high levels of GHGs are “turning up the thermostat” on Earth’s atmosphere to a point where global climate patterns are rapidly shifting. Changes in surface temperature, sea levels, and precipitation patterns threaten life and property. If nothing is done to slow and eventually halt anthropogenic GHG emissions, Earth’s climate will continue to swiftly change.


Read more about the causes of climate change
Array of photos of Rhode Island: a wastewater treatment plant, a white tailed deer, rows of tulips growing at Snake Den Farm, a fisherman unloads calamari at the Port of Galilee, two people stand on the walkway down to the shoreline on Block Island

How will Climate Change Impact Rhode Island?

The impacts of climate change in Rhode Island are diverse, documented, and increasingly severe. Climate change has the potential to pose significant risks to Rhode Island’s natural and built environment. Public health, welfare, and economic well-being could be impacted directly or indirectly by changing climate conditions.

Rhode Island will continue to experience warmer air temperatures, including more record-breaking temperatures in all seasons. Since the start of the 20th century, average temperatures have risen over 4 degrees Fahrenheit. Winter temperatures are rising faster than summer temperatures, likely attributed to a warmer North Atlantic Ocean. Notably, Rhode Island’s three warmest winters have all occurred since 2000, while the three coldest winters all occurred before 1980. This trend is projected to continue throughout the Northeast U.S.

Rhode Island’s lakes, rivers, bays, and offshore waters will continue to see rises in temperature. Since 1960, Narragansett Bay has warmed 3.0 degrees Fahrenheit according to the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program. Resultingly, the ecology of inland and coastal waterbodies will change in response to warmer temperatures. Lakes, ponds, and reservoirs will become more vulnerable to invasive species and toxic algae blooms, including cyanobacteria. As coastal waters warm, legacy species such as the American Lobster depart for colder water and Mid-Atlantic species such as the Black Sea Bass migrate into New England.

As with the entire Northeast, Rhode Island is already experiencing more intense and frequent rainfall events that cause urban and riverine flooding. According to the Fifth National Climate Assessment, extreme precipitation events have increased 60% in the Northeast since 1958, the largest increase anywhere in the U.S. Five of the top 10 wettest years in Rhode Island have occurred since 2000, with 2023 recording 57.66” of precipitation, the sixth highest amount since 1904. Urban and low-lying areas with poor drainage are particularly vulnerable to flooding that occurs with heavy precipitation events. As the global climate continues to warm, Rhode Island is expected to see more frequent and intense precipitation events.

Along Rhode Island’s 400 miles of coastline, sea levels are rising faster than the global average. In Newport, sea levels have risen 10” since 1930. Low-lying coastal areas along Narragansett Bay and Mount Hope Bay are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of sea level rise and saltwater inundation. As glaciers and ice sheets melt around the world in response to warmer temperatures, sea level rise will continue to impact Rhode Island’s coastlines. By 2100, sea levels along Rhode Island’s coastline are projected to rise another 12” – 48”. As coastal storms become stronger in response to warmer ocean temperatures, higher sea levels will result in more intensive erosion along barrier beaches and shorelines.

Since the early 20th century, the Providence area has observed a slight increase in annual snowfall. Some of the region’s blockbuster snowstorms have occurred since the new millennium, with 2015 and 2005 the second and third snowiest years on record, respectively. This trend is attributed to the greater abundance of water vapor in the atmosphere around southern New England, a product of warmer ocean temperatures due to climate change. As air temperatures continue to warm and Rhode Island’s climate shifts towards that of the Mid-Atlantic region, annual snowfall is projected to decrease. 

Interested in Learning More?

The Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4) and its member agencies are committed to scientifically evaluating the effects of climate change in Rhode Island. To learn more, check out these resources that highlight climate change effects and resilient solutions in Rhode Island.

Cover of the 2018 Resilient Rhody Climate Change Strategy

Resilient Rhody 

Rhode Island’s first climate resilience strategy responds to changing weather and environmental conditions caused by climate change and proposes implementable actions to prepare for these impacts. Resilient Rhody includes a valuable overview of Rhode Island’s changing climate, including sea level rise, warming air and water temperatures, storm frequency/intensity, biodiversity, and precipitation/flooding.

Cover of the EC4 Science and Technical Advisory Board Report

Current State of Climate Science in Rhode Island

Read about the EC4’s Science and Technical Advisory Board (STAB) synopsis on the state of knowledge of climate science. The Current State of Climate Science in Rhode Island further details the science behind sea level rise, changes in air and water temperature, storm frequency and intensity, biodiversity, and precipitation patterns.


Screenshot of the landing page for Rhode Island's 2022 climate summary on the NOAA website

NOAA 2022 Rhode Island State Climate Summary

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Centers for Environmental Information state-level climate summary for Rhode Island highlights historical climate variations, future climate model predictions of climate conditions during the 21st century, and past and future conditions of sea level and costal flooding. 


View NOAA 2022 State Climate Summary Website

Additional Resources