A Summer of Fire and Rain

Here’s a short and by no means comprehensive list of the extreme weather disasters that have taken place since the end of June, eight weeks ago:
  • More than 90 people died from the extreme heat in Quebec
  • Record rainfall in Japan caused flooding and landslides leading to at least 179 deaths
  • Over 60 wildfires raged above the Arctic Circle in Sweden
  • Thousands of people have been forced from their homes in the U.S. West, especially in California and Colorado, which have experienced unprecedented wildfires sparked by extreme heat and drought
  • An epic monsoon left more than 220,000 people homeless in southern India and killed at least 324 people
  • And in the Finger Lakes last week a “rain bomb” dropped up to 8.75 inches overnight and caused major flooding in Seneca and Schuyler Counties, destroying homes and tearing up roads
Flooding in Lodi Point last week. Photo credit: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.

2018 is on track to be the fourth hottest year on record, and 17 out of the warmest years since modern record-keeping began have occurred since 2001. “It’s not a wake-up call anymore,” said Cynthia Rosenzweig, who runs the climate impacts group at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in a recent interview with the New York Times. “It’s now absolutely happening to millions of people around the world.”

This summer of “fire and rain,” to quote a James Taylor song, has been relentless in its violence and destruction. It feels as if what was a slow-moving calamity has accelerated into a near biblical explosion of unceasing events, each day bringing news of another indication that climate change is looking more and more like climate chaos.

How do we know these are not isolated, unrelated events but rather part of a longer-term process that is nowhere near reaching its climax? Researchers, based on climate models, are now able to draw links between extreme weather events and climate change, and even quantify them. For example, the World Weather Attribution project, an international coalition of scientists, issued a study in July concluding that Europe’s record-breaking heat wave this summer was twice as likely to have occurred because of human-caused warming.

Scientists still think that it’s not too late to avoid the worst effects of climate change, but only if we undertake dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and changes in the way we live. Meanwhile, for those of us who are paying attention, the signs are all around us that the waters are not just rising; they are getting choppier and more turbulent with each passing day. What used to seem like something that would take place in the distant future is happening now.

“What we’re seeing today is making me, frankly, calibrate not only what my children will be living but what I will be living, what I am currently living,” Kim Cobb, a professor of earth and atmospheric science at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, noted recently in conversation with a reporter. “We haven’t caught up to it. I haven’t caught up to it, personally.”

Sobering words, indeed, that remind us what is at stake. There is no “new normal.” Our summer of fire and rain will only get much worse going forward if we fail, in the words of Taylor’s song, to “make a stand.”

 

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