Extreme temperatures in China coupled with a lack of power outages forced some of its biggest industrial cities last month. A rare, short-lived subtropical storm has developed in the South Atlantic off Argentina and Uruguay. And record heat set Canada and the Pacific Northwest ablaze, while drought cracked the entire western United States, leaving it poised to burn.
Summer in the northern hemisphere is only a few days old, but the extremes keep piling up. The conditions behind these events – heat, warming oceans, longstanding changes in weather patterns – are not going away anytime soon, which means the worst may be yet to come.
While forecasters had known for weeks that this summer was going to be brutal, it did nothing to dampen the shock as records and casualties mount. About 80 people died during the heat wave in Oregon, and about 700 perished in British Columbia. “It’s just a matter of increasing the score, at this point,” said Judah Cohen, director of seasonal forecasts at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, part of risk analysis firm Verisk.
According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, the United States leads economic losses from climate-related disasters, which totaled $ 944.8 billion from 1998 to 2017. China was second with $ 492.2 billion and Japan third with $ 376.3 billion. Extreme weather conditions cost US $ 45.4 billion per year on average from 1980 to 2021, according to the National Environmental Information Centers. There were nearly two dozen billion dollar disasters last year, which killed 262 people and cost a total of $ 96.4 billion, the fourth most ever. And the frequency of such events is increasing.
The culprit behind these events is increasingly clear and obvious: climate change. In the event of a tornado that swept through the Czech Republic in late June, for example, a cold, wet spring followed by record heat in June transferred latent energy to the atmosphere, resulting in conditions extreme weather. Scientists at the Austrian Central Institute of Meteorology and Geodynamics said the warmer temperatures caused by climate change were to blame. The tornado killed five people.
Even though much of the world is suffering, the United States is at risk of being particularly affected by inclement weather and fluctuations in a changing climate. A warm pool in the North Pacific has created a high-pressure ridge that pulls the jet stream and its wet winter storms away from California, leaving the Southwest dry, said Jennifer Francis, senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center.
Missing arctic sea ice due to climate change may well fuel this ridge. The whole mechanism has taken a boost this year as there has been a La Nina in the Pacific, which tends to favor a drier California and West.
âThe loss of ice in this area allows the ocean to absorb additional heat during the summer, which is released into the atmosphere during the fall and winter,â Francis said in an interview in March. “This extra heat is what strengthens the ridge that feeds the drought.”
In 11 western states, more than 98% of the land is unusually dry and drought has set in over 93%, according to the US Drought Monitor. Conditions are so dry that the threat of wildfires has arrived in many places a month earlier, said Gina Palma, a forecaster with the US Department of Agriculture in June.
The threat is expected to be above normal from the Pacific Northwest to the Rocky Mountains in the east and Coast Ranges and Sierra Nevada in California in July, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. In August, this danger zone will stretch through Montana and into North Dakota and South Dakota. It comes a year after record fires charred California and Colorado. As of June 29, more than 30,000 wildfires have broken out in the United States this year, up 25% from 2020. They have burned more than 1.4 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, the same amount as last year and less than the average area of ââjust under 2.1 million.
Across the country, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of Maine, people are grappling with what will be another hyperactive hurricane season. The same is true for the populations of the Caribbean, Central America and Canada. While 2021 isn’t expected to hit 2020’s record 30 storms, the season will likely produce more than the 14-system average. Five have already spun into the Atlantic.
âThis season is off to a quick start,â said Phil Klotzbach, senior author of the seasonal hurricane forecast at Colorado State University. âAlthough in general, early season activity is not much of a harbinger of what can happen later in the season if storms develop in the eastern and central tropical Atlantic before August. , it is usually the harbinger of a very active season. . “
Overall, water temperatures in the Atlantic are above average and typical of what you would see in an active year, Klotzbach said.
Many parts of the Caribbean, Central America and the United States are still trying to recover from past hurricane seasons. Louisiana, Honduras and Nicaragua have all been affected by back-to-back hurricanes in 2020, with Hurricanes Iota and Eta killing hundreds in Central America. The storms caused $ 3 billion in damage in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, according to UN and government estimates.
âClimate change is exacerbating the misery of people living in these vulnerable communities,â said Tom Cotter, director of emergency response and preparedness at Project HOPE, a Virginia-based humanitarian organization, in an interview in May.
Arctic warming, global impact
Temperatures could be above normal across much of the western and northern United States, throughout Eastern Europe and the Middle East through August, according to forecasts by the International Institute of Columbia University Climate and Society Research. But the biggest swings towards warming will occur in Greenland and along Russia’s Arctic Ocean coast, a trend scientists have long observed.
This heat on the Arctic coast is a problem, Cohen said. Research indicates the sharp division in temperatures between the Arctic Ocean, which still retains some of its ice, and the very hot shore pulling the jet stream far north.
Because the far north is so hot, the contrast between temperatures there and at the equator is less than before, weakening the weather. Between the pole and the equator is “a no man’s land, so these thermal domes are trapped in between,” Cohen said.
Thermal domes are mountains of high pressure that bring extreme temperatures. It was a heated dome that baked Portland, causing it to break its all-time temperature record three days in a row. In Canada, the Lytton area of ââBritish Columbia posted the highest temperatures on record in the country on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.
“It’s mind-boggling,” said Daniel Swain, a climatologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. âAnd I say that as a meteorologist, as well as a climatologist. It’s amazing to see these particular places getting so hot for so many days in a row.
It’s not just Canada and the United States that have been cooking in recent weeks. Moscow had its hottest June day since the days of Tsar Nicholas II. Taiwan is also facing its worst drought, which has pushed up food prices and threatened chipmakers. The United Arab Emirates choked by a high of 52 degrees Celsius only to be beaten by a reading of 53 degrees in Death Valley in California two weeks ago. And another heat dome bakes the Caspian Sea, where records are expected to fall.
The harmful effects of heat
Kimberly McMahon, public weather service program manager for the US National Weather Service, calls the heat “the silent killer.” It’s not something visual like a tornado or a hurricane.
Even when it doesn’t kill, it makes life a lot harder. Power lines cannot transmit so much electricity in extremely hot conditions. Planes cannot carry that much weight because the air is less dense. The roads are warping, as happened in Oregon and Washington last week, McMahon said.
While there is no completed investigation into the provenance of the Pacific Northwest Thermal Dome, climate change is its likely relative.
“Without human-induced climate change, it would have been almost impossible to achieve record average temperatures in June in the western United States,” said Nikos Christidis, climatologist at the UK Met Office. “The chances of it occurring naturally are once every tens of thousands of years.”
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