Facing reality is hard, but climate change has officially arrived.
It is here now in the form of extreme heat, wildfires, floods, and drought with more frequent and extreme storms. According to the World Meteorological Organization, the global temperature has increased about 1.1 degrees Celsius (about 2 degrees Fahrenheit) since the Industrial Revolution, and now every year the world is hotter than the last. The goal of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement was to take measures to limit warming to no more than 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius and we are already close to that margin. Looking at the terrifying IPCC Climate Report for 2021 that UN Secretary-General António Guterres calls a “code red for humanity,” we won’t make the Paris Climate Agreement goals if we don’t take swift and global action now.
The development of a new vocabulary has emerged to define current extremes brought about by climate change. Notable is the increased use of formerly obscure weather terms—aridification, megadrought, heat dome, anticyclone, derecho, superstorm, atmospheric river, and polar vortex are now often used to describe current weather events and climate conditions. These terms were uncommon before the effects of climate change became clear. The definitions of these terms further illustrate the extent of climate change on our everyday lives.
Climate attribution is a field of study in climatology that reports on changes in climate that are attributed to human activity alone. Climate attribution, or “fingerprinting,” was developed specifically because of extreme heat waves, which the National Weather Service has declared to be “the deadliest weather phenomenon in the US over the past 30 years on average.” Research from the journal Nature Climate Change found that more than one third of heat-related deaths in the world can be attributed to climate change.
It’s not only daytime temperatures that are rising, either. Nighttime temperatures are rising at a rate almost twice as fast as during the day. And the seasons for hot weather are extending into the spring and the fall. Colder regions are experiencing faster rises in temperature than warm climates, which explains the extreme weather conditions in temperate climates, rising sea levels, and permafrost thaws.
Extreme heat and lack of precipitation have led to the current megadrought that the covers a huge area from British Columbia down through Mexico, including New Mexico, Colorado, and Idaho. Scientists say that this 20-year drought could be the worst in the last 1,200 years. Previous megadroughts are attributed to natural changes in climate, and though there are natural variations at work, human-caused climate change is the bigger driver.
The extreme heat in the Western US is the result of atmospheric conditions that trap heat under a high pressure system, or anticyclone, and that creates a heat dome. The high pressure system pushes out cooler air and clouds, and there is no protection from the sun. The earth below dries out and temperatures rise. And since there’s minimal moisture in the US Southwest, the dryness fuels the anticyclone conditions and prolongs the heat wave. Urban heat island effect adds to the heat in cities with pavement and buildings that are in close proximity to one another, causing temperatures to increase up to 20 degrees higher than surrounding areas.
A frightening progression in the Western US areas affected by the megadrought is the condition called aridification, or a permanent state of drought. And it’s not just the West, either. The Missouri River, the longest river in the US, is fed by the Rocky Mountains and is experiencing a severe drought. And, as if we need reminders, the wildfires in the Western US are directly related to a warmer and drier atmosphere.
The Arctic is warming about twice as fast as the rest of the globe. The sea ice reflects the sun and as it melts, the darker water absorbs the sun and causes even more loss of ice. There are so many ramifications to warmer temperatures at the poles: thermal contraction of permafrost which causes an increase in greenhouse gases, rising ocean levels, reduction of habitat for species from plankton to polar bears, and vegetation changes which harm some species and benefit others.
Heavy Precipitation and High Winds
Hurricanes are the costliest of natural disasters and while the occurrence of hurricanes, tropical cyclones, and typhoons has not increased they are becoming stronger and more destructive due to climate change. Warmer air and oceans cause more rainfall, slow the speed of storms over land, and intensify the strength of hurricanes. Hurricane Ida in October, 2021 produced heavy rains that caused significant flooding in low-lying areas of Louisiana and may be the costliest storm to hit the mainland US.
Superstorms are large storm systems that can’t be classified on a traditional scale and affect large geographic areas. Superstorm Sandy in 2012, for example, impacted countries from the Caribbean to Canada and was extremely unpredictable and long-lasting; at times it took on the patterns of a hurricane and at other times it was a severe storm with hurricane-force winds. Three ways that the storm was worsened by climate change are rising sea temperatures, rising sea levels, and an unusual weather pattern brought about by melting Arctic ice.
Atmospheric rivers and related bomb cyclones are concentrated streams of water organized in a cyclone that are transported from the tropics-think “Pineapple Express”-and are normal. The qualifier for these storms that are called bombs is the drop in atmospheric pressure by at least 24 millibars in 24 hours, the equivalent of a strong hurricane. Climate change is causing these storms to intensify. The bomb cyclone and resulting atmospheric river on the West Coast of North America in October, 2021 dropped 5.44 inches of rain in Sacramento in one day, the most rain recorded there since 1880. These intense storms can cause flooding and mudslides but also help to replenish the snow pack and reservoirs whose levels have dropped so low due to the drought.
A deadly derecho occurred in Iowa last year, which is a series of “straight-line storms,” as opposed to counter-clockwise or cyclonic movements of hurricanes and tornadoes. These series of storms can cover large geographic areas and have winds over 100 mph. It’s not clear how these conditions are related to climate change, but climate experts expect them to occur more frequently. But what is clear is that storms like a derecho or a cyclone are more extreme and this is related to climate change.
Frigid conditions occur with some regularity in North America, and they can come from the polar vortex, which is an area of cold air that is typically parked over the Arctic. At times, the outer perimeter of the vortex destabilizes and the cold air travels south causing extreme cold in the Northern Hemisphere. Because the Arctic is warming from climate change and causes more frequent destabilization, these frigid conditions will occur more often. The freezing conditions with snow and ice fall in South Texas in February, 2021 are a prime example of the effects of a polar vortex. This polar vortex also affected Greece and Turkey, while Greenland, Alaska, and Scandinavia are experiencing record heat.
The water shortage is also of great concern, not just in the US but globally. The US Bureau of Reclamation declared the first-ever official water shortage at the Colorado River, which will trigger the largest mandatory water cuts to date in the Colorado River Basin.
On the other side of the globe, Karachi, Pakistan—one of the largest megacities in the world—may be a dangerous harbinger of things to come. Karachi’s water shortage comes from infrastructure problems but is also about the “tanker mafia” that is in full swing in Pakistan. These organizations install unofficial and sub-standard hydrants along the Lyari River, the river that supplies water to Karachi, and they sell it to companies, wealthy people, and regular citizens for millions of dollars of profit. This means that ordinary citizens not only have to pay their government for water that no longer comes out of their taps, but they also have to pay the tanker mafia to deliver untreated water that is contaminated. Could a version of this happen in the US?
If you don’t believe that paying extra for water can’t happen here, look at what’s happening in Santa Barbara County. More and more, large rivers and water reservoirs can’t supply the water needed in the Southwest US. That means that local wells and underground aquifers are relied upon to supply drinking water to their residents and they are running dry due to the drought. Only those who can pay the price can afford the water. This may be the future of our water supply if action is not taken.