As climate change worsens, extreme weather disasters pile up

From record rainfall inundating cities around the world to wildfires scorching an unprecedented area to deadly heat waves that have come with unrelenting regularity to the Northern Hemisphere this summer, extreme weather linked to climate change is unfolding with frightening clarity.

"This is a direct impact of the climate crisis," John Kerry, President Biden's special envoy for climate, told CBS News regarding the startling recent string of extreme weather disasters.

With greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere continuing to rise, so too have global temperatures. Since the start of the industrial revolution, average surface temperatures have risen by 1.1 degrees Celsius, setting into motion changes to the earth's climate that are manifest in more frequent extreme weather events.

"Rising global average temperature is associated with widespread changes in weather patterns," the Environmental Protection Agency says on its website. "Scientific studies indicate that extreme weather events such as heat waves and large storms are likely to become more frequent or more intense with human-induced climate change."

This summer there has been no shortage of weather events that climate scientists have, at least in part, concluded were made worse by global warming. Here is a rundown of some weather events that have occurred over the last two months.

This photo taken on July 26, 2021 shows rescuers evacuating residents with a loader at a flooded area in Weihui, Xinxiang city, in China's central Henan province. - China OUT (Photo by STR / AFP) / China OUT (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Rescuers evacuating residents with a loader in Xinxiang, Henan province, China, on Monday. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Torrential downpours overwhelm infrastructure

As the planet warms, it is able to hold more moisture in the atmosphere. Studies have shown that for every 1 degree Celsius of warming, the atmosphere holds 7 percent more moisture. That fact helps explain the almost daily headlines about extreme downpours that have flooded cities and towns across the world in recent weeks, including this month's deluge in western Germany — 7 inches of rain in just 12 hours — that left nearly 200 people dead.

Last week a storm parked itself over Zhengzhou, China, for 72 hours and dumped a year's worth of rain, killing more than 36 people and displacing a million residents due to flooding. Drivers were stuck in underground tunnels, forcing them to crawl on top of submerged cars in order to escape. Drowning deaths were also reported in the city's subway system.

For the second time in two weeks, extreme rainfall crippled London on Sunday, dumping a month's worth of rain in a matter of hours. That downpour flooded the subway system, closing eight stations, and inundated highways and urban areas, trapping motorists in cars and residents in their homes.

While monsoon rains occur every year in India, this year's rains have proved anything but ordinary. More than 164 people were reported dead this week following downpours in in the western state of Maharashtra. Houses were submerged in floodwaters, landslides were triggered and dozens of people were trapped, thanks to the worst extreme rainfall in decades.

Besides the additional moisture in the atmosphere because of rising temperatures, another common link climate researchers are studying is the way climate change is altering the jet stream. As a result of this disturbance, storm systems have been observed to move more slowly in some parts of the world, allowing for more rain to collect in given locations.

CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES - 2021/07/24: Active flames reach highway 70.
The Dixie fire continues to burn in California burning over 180,000 acres with 20% containment. (Photo by Ty O'Neil/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
The Dixie Fire in California on July 24. (Ty O'Neil/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Wildfires proliferate

While rising temperatures mean more moisture in the atmosphere, that doesn't always translate into rain across the globe. In the American West, for instance, severe drought has taken hold, and higher temperatures have further exacerbated the conditions for wildfires.

In the Western U.S., "fire season" is now 2.5 times longer than it was in the 1970s, according to the U.S. Forest Service, and in terms of the worst seasons on record, the nine largest areas burned by wildfires have all occurred since 2005.

At least 85 active fires are currently burning across the Western states, and this year's season is poised to break the record for acreage burned, which was set last year. Hazardous smoke from the blazes has blanketed communities all the way to the East Coast.

In Siberia, meanwhile, more than 5,000 firefighters are battling blazes that are burning across 4.6 million acres, the largest wildfire outbreak since 2019.

Aisen Nikolaev, the leader of the northern Siberian region of Sakha, said in an interview this week that the ultimate cause behind the dramatic uptick in wildfires in the area was not a mystery.

“Obviously, there is only one reason: Global climate change,” Nikolaev said. “We can see how it’s getting hotter in [Sakha] every year. We are living through the hottest, driest summer in the history of meteorological measurements since the end of the 19th century.”

Wildfires have also forced people to evacuate their homes in Southern Europe, including the Italian island of Sardinia. More than 7,500 firefighters were deployed to fight large blazes on the island, and more than 1,000 people were evacuated.

In Greece, heat waves have helped worsen wildfires this year, and above-average temperatures are expected to raise the threat even further in the coming days.

"I want to emphasize that August remains a difficult month. Meteorologists are already warning us that from the end of next week we may face another big prolonged heat wave. That is why it is important for all of us, all the state services, to be on absolute alert, until the firefighting period is formally over," Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said at a Monday Cabinet meeting, CNN reported.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - 2021/07/18: A tourist is seen covering her head from the sun and heat in the museum area of Montjüic mountain.
According to the State Meteorological Agency (AE.MET), an increase in temperatures is expected in Catalonia. For Barcelona the warning will be at an orange level with temperatures between 30 and 39 degrees centigrade. (Photo by Paco Freire/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A tourist in Barcelona covers her head from the sun. (Paco Freire/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Heat wave after heat wave

In the wake of the brutal heat wave that roasted much of the Pacific Northwest and Canada, studies have shown that as climate change continues to worsen, heat waves will become more commonplace. We already know that the number of record high temperatures is outpacing the number of record low temperatures by a ratio of 2:1. Computer models have shown that that disparity will grow to 20:1 by 2050 and to 50:1 by 2100.

Backing that finding up, “the 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 2005, and 7 of the 10 have occurred just since 2014,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says on its website. The agency has also found that global temperatures are currently rising at a rate of 0.18 degrees Celsius per decade, much faster than had been previously thought.

With millions of Americans expected to be subjected to triple-digit temperatures in the coming days, heat deaths are also expected to rise. The heat dome that descended over the Pacific Northwest is blamed in the deaths of nearly 200 people across the region. Extreme heat is the leading weather-related cause of death in the U.S., according to the National Weather Service.

Erich Fischer, a climate scientist at ETH Zurich, is the lead author of a new study that confirms we can expect a greater number of deadly heat waves as temperatures continue to rise.

"The main message is that we need to prepare for more record heat events in the coming decades that shatter previous record temperatures by large margins," Fischer told Axios.


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