Extreme summer: From wildfires to deadly floods, global warming is increasingly apparent...
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When it comes to our climate, everything is connected. And there has never been a year, and most especially a summer, that has so prominently and destructively showcased this.
Right now, wildfires are blazing across the drought-stricken western United States, overpowering firefighters in California. Earlier this summer, the already scorching Middle East saw all-time record heat. Meanwhile, from huge swaths of China to at least four states in the U.S., devastating flooding has inundated homes and uprooted lives.
And we still haven’t arrived at the peak of hurricane season.
The extreme weather events we’ve seen — and are still living through — around the world collectively bear the fingerprints of human-caused global warming. So, too, does the bevy of monthly heat records that have fallen so frequently that the news stories announcing them almost write themselves.
While each event has its own multitude of causes, from risky development practices to natural climate variability, experts say human-caused climate change is increasingly emerging from the shadows and into the forefront, making itself known as at least a drop of the fuel feeding many of these extreme events.
This is especially true with heat waves, which — along with wildfires — have been so prominent this summer. Extreme precipitation events have slightly more tenuous links to climate change, but there is still solid evidence of trends toward more rainfall coming in heavier, shorter bursts compared to longer, lighter rainstorms.
“The ‘signal’ of climate change is no longer subtle. We are seeing climate change impacts now play out, on our television screens, in the headlines, on our television sets,” said Michael Mann, director of Penn State University’s Earth System Science Center.
“Whether it’s the multitude of thousand-year flooding events we’ve seen over the past year, the massive wildfires, the strongest hurricanes in both hemispheres, etc., we are now dealing with the impacts of climate change on a daily basis,” Mann told Mashable in an email.
“What more do the critics need to see? It’s almost like someone up there is trying to tell them something…”
The list of records broken this summer, and this year-to-date, reads like a horror movie script.
Each of the past 15 months have been the warmest such months on record, culminating in July, which was the warmest month of any month on Earth since instrument records began in 1880. This year will almost certainly be the warmest year on record, surpassing the record set just last year.
Mitribah, Kuwait, recorded a blisteringly high temperature of 129.2 degrees Fahrenheit, or 54 degrees Celsius, in mid-July. If this is confirmed by the World Meteorological Organization, it would become the hottest temperature ever recorded in the Eastern Hemisphere.
These records are not the work of global warming alone, since an El Niño event in the tropical Pacific helped to boost global temperatures. But the temperatures reached during this El Niño far surpass that of the last intense El Niño in 1997-1998, because the baseline climate has shifted so much since then.
In fact, global temperatures met or exceeded a critical threshold — 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit — during the first part of 2016.
This is significant because, in a nod to the most vulnerable nations already suffering from rising seas and punishing heat waves, the Paris Climate Agreement struck in December 2015 called for world leaders “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels.
The upper limit of 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, remained in the agreement.
However, as a research report from Climate Central, a research and journalism group, showed, the average global temperature change for the first three months of 2016 was 1.48 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures, “essentially equaling the 1.5 degrees Celsius warming threshold agreed to” in Paris.
February and March exceeded the 1.5-degree threshold, but subsequent months have been slightly cooler as the El Niño event has faded away.
Kevin Trenberth, a senior climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, said the duration of the global warmth associated with this El Niño event combined with global warming is not all that surprising, given how long past El Niños have affected the climate.
In the U.S. and around the world, this has been a summer of extreme weather that has astonished veteran meteorologists, and brought hardship to millions. Record heat waves, deadly floods, massive wildfires and even a climate-related anthrax outbreak have left their mark from Siberia to California.
In Louisiana right now, tens of thousands of residents are beginning the long process of putting their lives back together after a 1,000-year-deluge caused historic flooding that led to more than 30,000 rescues and at least 13 deaths.
For many areas, this was an unprecedented event.
Along the Amite River at Denham Springs, just east of Baton Rouge, a river gauge hit 46.2 feet on Sunday morning, which was about five feet above its previous record crest in 1983. Records there date back to 1921.
More rain fell in Watson, Louisiana in just a few days - 31.39 inches - than typically falls in an entire year in Minneapolis or San Francisco, for example.
Near-record warm water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico contributed to the deluge, which began late last week and continued through the weekend. Global climate change also played a part in this disaster by increasing the amount of moisture the atmosphere can hold, which goes up by about 7 percent for every degree Celsius in warming.
When the damage is finally tallied from the Louisiana floods, the bill is likely to run into the billions of dollars. The Red Cross, for example, says this was the worst natural disaster to strike the U.S. since Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Only a minority of homeowners hit with flooding likely had flood insurance, according to news reports.
The ‘signal’ of climate change is no longer subtle.
According to Trenberth, historic extreme events can arise whenever natural variability trends, such as El Niño, combine with global warming-related signals to boost an extreme event beyond the severity limit it otherwise might not have exceeded.
“The result is that with natural variability pulling alongside of global warming: as it always is somewhere on the planet, we get huge extremes,” he said. Trenberth said that as ocean heat and water vapor is converted into heat energy released by storms, the resulting rains can be at least 30 percent greater than they would’ve been without global warming.
“I think our work establishes the framing for a widespread increase in heavy rains in storms, but varying quite a lot depending on how the natural component works with or against the global warming and increased ocean heat content that is always there,” he added.
Ellicott City, Md. after flash flooding on July 31. mpi34/MediaPunch/IPX/AP
Meanwhile, about 1,800 miles to the west, California is burning, with thousands of firefighters battling at least eight large fires across the parched state. The five-year-old drought, which is the state’s worst on record and has ties to both natural climate variability and global warming, has dried out soils and vegetation.
All it takes is hot, dry weather and a spark to ignite a fast-moving conflagration, like the Bluecut fire near San Bernadino. While these fires may be lit by arson at first, the drought—with climate change lurking in the wings—is what enables the flames to grow so quickly and spread so far.
The Bluecut fire, for example, began on Tuesday morning, but quickly spread out of control. It was just 22 percent contained as of Friday morning.
"In my 40 years of fighting fires, I have never seen such extreme fire behavior,” San Bernardino County Fire Department Batallion Chief Michael Wakoski said at a recent press conference.
“We are not even in the hot part of fire season yet,” Wakoski said. “This is October-like fire behavior conditions we're having right now, and we’re only in August, so we are in for a fight.”
Growing populations that have steadily encroached into wildfire zones only add to the peril, raising the prospect that homes and businesses will be lost in these blazes and adding to the risks that firefighters face.
The U.S. experienced two rounds of brutal heat and humidity that prompted heat advisories and warnings for days from Massachusetts to Missouri. One intense heat wave struck in July, and the other in early August.
Neither stood out for their daytime highs, with relatively few all-time records toppling. Rather, the sweltering humidity caused heat indices, which measures how hot the human body feels, to soar to dangerous heights, and kept overnight low temperatures from falling to comfortable levels. Such conditions can prove deadly, especially for those without air conditioning.
“The science of extreme event attribution tells us that right now about three out of four daily heat extremes have a human fingerprint,” said Heidi Cullen, the chief scientist for Climate Central, in an email.
“So global warming is steadily dialing up the chances of a heat wave. Extreme heat will only get worse if we don't cut emissions drastically right away.”
Extreme heat will only get worse if we don't cut emissions drastically right away.
The extreme events so far this year, and particularly this summer, aren’t just limited to the midlatitudes.
Right now at the top of the world, a giant storm equivalent to the intensity of a Category 2 hurricane is stirring melting sea ice like a slushie maker. Such a summer storm is relatively unusual, and a similar event in 2012 helped dramatically speed up sea ice loss to set an all-time record low.
No one knows whether the storm, which is forecast to linger for at least several days and potentially grow stronger, will help accelerate sea ice loss, causing the ice extent to reach a new record low, or if it might help keep that fragile ice intact somehow, leading to the second or third-lowest ice extent on record, behind 2012. Arctic sea ice plummeted at rapid rates this spring and summer, as Arctic-wide average temperatures have hit all-time record highs.
Into that stormy, ice-speckled sea sails a nearly 1,800-person cruise ship that aims to be the largest passenger vessel ever to successfully navigate the twists and turns of the famed Northwest Passage. That route was closed throughout human history, until global warming-induced sea ice melt pried enough ice away to open some of it in 2007.
According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), the southern route through the passage is now open, something legendary explorers, some of whom perished trying to find a way through it, could only have dreamed of.
The events so far this year, and particularly this summer, have led one prominent climate activist and journalist, Bill McKibben, to write that global warming has “declared war” on human society, and that nothing short of a wartime mobilization to reduce global warming pollutants will come close to solving the issue.
“At this point I am glad we’ve got scientists doing what they’re doing but all you need to have is a television set to have a sense of how out of kilter things have become,” McKibben, a founder of the group 350.org, told Mashable in an interview on Wednesday.
“The real motive for writing the piece is to write that it has gone to war on us. It’s not a metaphor, it’s happening.”
He was encouraged by the progress in Paris, but says the basic physics of global warming are outpacing action. He says he is left with “... a haunting sense that it’s coming way too late.”
Climate scientists often talk about projections out to the year 2100, and such long-term thinking is important. But the events of 2016, particularly the summer of 2016, illustrate how climate change is already manifesting itself in potentially ruinous ways.
And, like the ship winding through the Northwest Passage, the climate system cannot be turned around quickly. That leaves leaders with a window of about 10 to 20 years, depending on which study you read, to begin drastic emissions cuts.
Even with those cuts, however, we’ll need to brace ourselves for more summers, and more years, like 2016.
Assistant Science Editor