Summer of historic climate change impacts draws to a close

Thursday marked the first day of autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, and for many that probably brings a sigh of relief: Summer, the season in which climate change is most readily apparent and uncomfortable, has finally ended.

This summer once again proved a busy time for climate reporters and a dangerous one for those who are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including extreme heat, drought, wildfires, severe rainfall events and hurricanes.

Even before the official first day of summer, temperatures were breaking records across much of the Western United States. An unusually hot spring, combined with an ongoing megadrought in the parched Southwest, brought raging wildfires to New Mexico in April, before the start of the traditional wildfire season. Tourist towns like Taos were draped in smoke, roads were closed and some 6,000 residents were evacuated.

A firefighter, aiming water from a hose, works on putting out a smoky hot spot from a wildfire.
A firefighter works on putting out a hot spot from a wildfire in Mora, N.M.. in May. (Matt McClain/Washington Post via Getty Images)

In early May, the hot, dry weather caused Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, to drop to its lowest point in decades, revealing long-missing dead bodies in the process.

By early June, the drought had forced the water authority in Southern California to tighten emergency restrictions on usage. And by the middle of that month, the two largest reservoirs on the Colorado River, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, had dropped so low that Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton warned a Senate hearing that maintaining “critical levels” in them would require significant cuts in water deliveries to the seven states that rely on the Colorado for their water supply.

“A warmer, drier West is what we are seeing today,” Touton said. “And the challenges we are seeing today are unlike anything we have seen in our history.”

The water kept going down, and by early August the United Nations was warning of the potential for water shortages and power outages if the reservoirs dropped so low that the water would stop flowing and their hydroelectric dams would no longer work.

Meanwhile, a scorching heat wave engulfed Western Europe. The months of June, July and August set a new record for the hottest average temperatures ever recorded there, measuring 0.4 degrees Celsius (0.72 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than the previous all-time record, set in 2021.

A landscape of parched brown grass in Brockwell Park in London.
A landscape of parched brown grass in Brockwell Park in London on Aug. 15. (Richard Baker/In Pictures via Getty Images)

In August, a study by the European Commission determined that Europe was facing its worst drought in 500 years, with two-thirds of the continent under a "warning" or "alert.”

On July 19, the United Kingdom broke its previous high temperature record of 38.7°C (101.7°F), set in 2019, by hitting 40.2°C (104.4°F). Scientists have since concluded that the extreme heat would have been “extremely unlikely” without climate change.

As temperatures passed 100°F in parts of France, Spain and Portugal during the same brutal mid-July stretch, more records were shattered, and deaths due to heat-related causes topped 2,000 in Spain and Portugal.

Wildfires are an inevitable result of heat waves and droughts, even in a continent such as Europe that isn’t historically known for them. More than 1.6 million acres — equal to one-fifth of the land mass of Belgium — burned in Europe by mid-August, leaving the continent on pace to break its all-time record for wildfires this year.

Previously uncommon extreme heat waves also plagued the Pacific Northwest, causing Seattle residents to rush to buy air conditioning.

The heat didn’t let up on much of the West Coast. Earlier this month. Sacramento, Calif., set its all-time high temperature at 116°F, and it recorded its 42nd day over 100°F, setting another record.

A temperature sign outside a bank in Sacramento, Calif., reads 118°.
A temperature sign at a bank in Sacramento, Calif., on Sept. 6. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The heat and drought caused water levels to drop in lakes and rivers, exposing ancient artifacts and weapons from long-ago wars everywhere from the Rocky Mountain West to Eastern Europe to Iraq to China.

The heat also caused an unusually large amount of melting in Pakistan’s glaciers, filling its rivers and setting the stage for the massive flooding that has since accompanied record-setting monsoon rains. The country now must contend with over 95,000 square miles being submerged, a death toll in excess of 1,300 people, 1.2 million homes destroyed and property damage that is expected to reach $10 billion. Climate change experts warn that this is a window into the injustice of climate change, in which poor countries will suffer the worst effects of a problem caused by fossil fuel consumption in the developed world.

Another example of that phenomenon hit closer to home late last week, when Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Fiona. Parts of the island received 30 inches of rain, causing landslides and overflowing rivers. Most of Puerto Rico is now without power. The hurricane gained strength, rising to a Category 4 and moving on to the Dominican Republic. It is now headed for Bermuda.

Climate change makes hurricanes more intense, in part because warmer ocean temperatures provide more energy, creating heavier rains and stronger winds.

But it's not just hurricanes. Because warmer air holds more moisture, even regular rainstorms have become heavier. In late July and early August, three different U.S. regions were hit with “1-in-1,000-year rains” in one week: Southern Illinois received eight to 12 inches of rain in 12 hours, six to 10 inches fell in seven hours in St. Louis, and up to 14 inches were recorded in eastern Kentucky, causing 39 deaths.

A worker driving a tractor moves water toward a storm drain after heavy rain.
A worker moves water toward a storm drain in Lake Bluff, Ill., on July 23 after heavy rain. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

“In recent years, a larger percentage of precipitation has come in the form of intense single-day events,” the Environmental Protection Agency has noted. “Nine of the top 10 years for extreme one-day precipitation events have occurred since 1996."

After the summer of 2022, autumn may feel like a reprieve in some parts of the U.S. In California, however, yet another heat wave is on tap, with temperatures in the southern part of the state expected to hit triple digits yet again.

Soon it will be winter, but even that cooler weather will be impacted by climate change. As the Arctic is warming faster than regions closer to the equator, the jet stream has begun to dip farther south and the polar vortex, a band of cold air, has become stretched out. The result is more extreme bursts of cold air and snowstorms in Southern states, some of which, as was experienced in 2021 across Texas, have energy grids that are totally unprepared for it.