Image: Oregon Approximately 100 firefighters from nine agencies worked to contain the blaze west of Monroe, Oregon, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016. (Godofredo Vasquez/The Corvallis Gazette-Times via AP
In reflection of recent events, we wanted to share this article by Pam Wright, Why Extreme Deadly Hurricanes, Heat Waves and Wildfires Are Here to Stay, originally published on weather.com 9/13/17
It has been a summer wrought with unimaginable loss as hurricanes devastated the lives of millions in the Caribbean and the U.S., fires destroyed homes and scorched hundreds of thousands of acres in the West, and killer heat waves struck the Pacific Northwest and Europe.
Welcome to the planet’s new reality, a reality not likely to change anytime soon thanks to climate change.
Even as the wealthy gathered with the poor to survey the damage to their lives that was left behind by Irma, political leaders like France’s Emmanuel Macron were quick to blame Hurricane Irma on climate change.
Pope Francis this week told reporters hurricanes Irma and Harvey should be a wake-up call to humanity, noting that history will judge those who deny the science on the causes of global warming.
“If we don’t turn back, we will go down,” Francis said. “You can see the effects of climate change and scientists have clearly said what path we have to follow. All of us have a responsibility, all of us, small or large, a moral responsibility. We have to take it seriously. We can’t joke about it. Each person has their own. Even politicians have their own.”
Less vocal on the link between Irma, Harvey and climate change are the scientists. That’s because the connection between climate change and a specific weather event is complicated.
In fact, it’s impossible to directly link events like Irma or Harvey to climate change, at least for now until climate scientists study individual storms. However, there is broad consensus among scientists that climate change is real and responsible for numerous severe weather events and their deadly impacts.
“An increasingly common question after an extreme weather event is whether climate change ‘caused’ that event to occur,” David W. Titley, a Pennsylvania State University meteorology professor, said after the release of a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, linking extreme weather events and climate change. “While that question remains difficult to answer given all the factors that affect an individual weather event, we can now say more about how climate change has affected the intensity or likelihood of some events.”
Hurricanes: While researchers are still trying to understand the link between climate and the formation of powerful hurricanes, the risk to low-lying areas and the deadly impacts of storm surge from hurricanes as a result of sea level rise are well-documented.
According to a 2013 study published in PNAS, the risk of a Hurricane Katrina-level storm surge has risen two to seven times for every 1.8-degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature.
Climate change can also impact the amount of rainfall that drops from a hurricane because a warming planet enables the atmosphere to hold more moisture.
“We think that Harvey type of rainfalls will become noticeably more frequent as the century goes on, ” Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at MIT, told the Los Angeles Times. Researchers have found that the number of hurricanes may decrease in the years to come because of climate change, but stronger Category 4 or 5 storms will likely become more frequent, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notes. “A review of existing studies lead us to conclude that it is likely that greenhouse warming will cause hurricanes in the coming century to be more intense globally and have higher rainfall rates than present-day hurricanes,” NOAA says. “The hurricane model also projects that the lifetime maximum intensity of Atlantic hurricanes will increase by about 5 percent during the 21st century.”
Heat Waves: Heat waves are perhaps the easiest weather events to link to climate change, and there are a plethora of studies that demonstrate that “global warming is bringing more frequent and severe heat waves.”
“The result will be serious for vulnerable populations,” said Amanda Staudt, a National Wildlife Federation climate scientist. “That means air pollution in urban areas could get worse, bringing increased risk of heart attacks, strokes and asthma attacks. Children, the elderly, poor, and people of color are especially vulnerable to these effects.”
According to a study published earlier this summer in Nature Climate Change, three out of four people on the planet could experience at least 20 days per year of heat and humidity associated with deadly heat waves unless something is done to curb carbon emissions.
“For heat waves, our options are now between bad or terrible,” lead author Camilo Mora, associate professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, told CNN. “Many people around the world are already paying the ultimate price of heat waves, and while models suggest that this is likely to continue to be bad, it could be much worse if emissions are not considerably reduced.”
A study released in August by the European Commission suggested parts of the world may soon experience super heat waves if global warming continues unchecked, with temperatures reaching more than 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
Wildfires: Global warming will continue to suck up moisture in the soil, creating dangerous and conducive conditions for wildfires as trees and grasslands dry up.
A study by researchers at Oregon State University noted that large wildfire activity increased suddenly and markedly in the mid 1980s, with higher large-wildfire frequency, longer wildfire durations and longer wildfire seasons. “Wildfire frequency was nearly four times the average of 1970 to 1986, and the total area burned by these fires was more than six and a half times its previous level,” the study said.
Ironically, the Oregon team noted wildfires will further contribute to global warming as carbon from the fires is released into the atmosphere. “If wildfire trends continue, at least initially, this biomass burning will result in carbon release, suggesting that the forests of the western United States may become a source of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide,” the study says.
Another less-well-known effect of global warming is a change in ecosystems as winters become warmer and shorter, making wildfires more likely.
Researchers believe pine beetles have become more prevalent and destructive to trees throughout the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest and Canada, making them prime kindling for wildfires. The scientists believe frigid winter temperatures were keeping the pine beetle populations in check, but with longer, warmer winters, populations have exploded. “The projected regional warming and consequent increase in wildfire activity in the western United States is likely to magnify the threats to human communities and ecosystems, and substantially increase the management challenges in restoring forests and reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” the Oregon team notes.