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Record heat, freak storms and brutal drought: visions from our climate future

Posted Jul. 6, 2012 / Posted by: Prashanth Kamalakanthan

On Friday evening, my husband Patrick and I were putting our daughter to bed and preparing an emergency kit at the same time. Due to the heat wave that had struck the lower southeast, we had already sweltered through a day where the heat index pushed past 110 degrees. I had obsessively watched the news -- expecting kitschy stories of reporters holding infrared thermometers to picnic tables and hollering, “145 degrees – can you believe i­t?” What I saw instead was terrifying. Doug Kammerer, pointing to a weather system to the west, said that he was tracking a very dangerous storm, a storm capable of producing winds up to 80 mph. Soon, all the stories about the exc­essive heat were muted by the dire warnings coming from weather watchers across our region.

We­ tucked our daughter Olivia in and found our battery-powered radio and our flashlight and even brought blankets to our basement. It was tense in our house. Our normal routine of relaxing with a movie was interrupted by frequent refreshing of the weather radar on our laptop. We learned new terms – “convective storm systems,” “derecho” and “bow echo” – as the updates became increasingly frequent and urgent.

At 10:34­ p.m., we heard a moan that escalated into the scariest howl I have ever heard. Patrick announced the storm’s arrival -- and as if for dramatic effect, our power went out. We scurried to set up candles, and I ran into Olivia’s room to pull her out of bed. About to head to the basement, we instead cowered on the couch and waited as the trees behind our house bent at unnatural 45 degree angles.

Colorado wildfire

All the past week, I had been tracking the Colorado wildfires and the process of Tropical Storm Debby, which dumped an unprecedented 26 inches of rain in some places. Previously, I lamented the flooding in Minnesota, which uprooted seals and polar bears. I felt for the climate victims – the lost loved ones, the treasured belongings, the total disruption to life. With the onslaught of the #dcstorm, I would witness the damage and disruption firsthand.

The next morning, with no power and heat index values predicted to reach 105 again, my family made the frantic decision to track down a place to stay and to check in on loved ones. From what I still call a blessing, my dad’s house was not affected – he had power and a place for us. 

Tropical Storm Debby

Packed into the car and making the trip across town the full impacts of the storm became apparent quickly. Montgomery County, where I live, had hundreds of thousands of people without power. We were on mandatory water conservation because three of our water pumping stations had lost power. 500 of the 800 traffic lights were dark. The few operable gas stations saw huge long lines as customers drew up seeking gas for generators and for their vehicles.

We tried to make our way into my mom’s neighborhood and each street was blocked by huge trees that had been ripped from their trunks and twisted into power lines or worse, people’s houses.

I see the impacts of global climate change across the U.S., and I talk about them because that’s my job. It’s a very different feeling when it’s on my doorstep. I become almost incredulous: How can our government continue with business as usual, moving forward with horrific projects like the Keystone XL pipeline, when its own people are already suffering the impacts of a heated climate?

I understand when there is the immediate need to seek shelter or to check in on family that climate change is not going to be the headline, but it was still in the conversation among my family and friends. I found myself wondering why the media continued to largely miss this opportunity for broader discussion.

Nothing can beat Doug Kammerer’s declaration:

If we didn’t ­have global warming, we wouldn’t see this. I really believe that. I really think this is because –­ maybe we would have seen 101, maybe we would have seen 102. But not 104. We have set all-time records across the entire portion of the country. St. Louis hit 108 yesterday. Nashville, Tennessee, hit 109 degrees during the day today. That is extreme heat, and these are all-time records that have come up here.

U.S. Drought Chart


But his straightforward comment shouldn't be the exception. The U.S. is not good at preventative measures. We believe that it won’t happen to us, even when it does over and over again. It’s why we hesitate to shut down leaky nuclear reactors in the wake of Fukushima or elevate climate change denialism over real attempts to stop it from progressing.

The past few weeks of extreme weather, though, have spread alarm among even the most cautious observers. The severe windstorms that affected my family have left millions in similar conditions, isolated and without power amid record-breaking heat. Drought conditions are now present in over half of the U.S., placing pressure on farmers and driving up food prices. In some places the heat and drought have converged to the point that residents are complaining that “even weeds can’t grow.” The most destructive wildfires in Colorado’s history have decimated entire communities, while across the world in India, the worst monsoon floods in a decade have killed scores of people and displaced over two million.

Monsoons in India

These severe, life-altering developments for millions of people across the world were recently juxtaposed in the media by Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson’s contestation that “Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around — we’ll adapt to that. It’s an engineering problem and it has engineering solutions.”

Tillerson’s response to the complex challenges of preventing climate change are naïve and offensive. But it makes sense – as a leader of the fossil fuel industry that has led us down the path of increasingly severe storms, crippling droughts, and record heat, he has profits to protect. But his casual statements fly in the face of stories pouring in from across the planet, causing people to question whether this is the future we want.

And after picking through the detritus and getting their lives back together, ordinary people have started telling and sharing their stories, enlivening the conversation around climate change and how it can affect all of our daily lives. A recent example is Colorado wildfire survivor Hani Ahmed, who worries that the fire that made a smoldering hole of his former home was made worse by climate change, whose threat continues to grow.

While the science of attributing the severity of individual weather events to climate change is still developing – causing many scientists to be cautious in doing so – even climate science experts have started becoming bolder and more vocal about the extreme changes in weather patterns we’ve seen. Leading climate scientists at RealClimate, for example, have noted that “the probability for ‘outlandish’ heat records increases greatly due to global warming,” and worryingly, “the more outlandish a record is, the more would we suspect that non-linear feedbacks are at play – which could increase their likelihood even more.” Last year, a report by Stanford climate scientists even went so far as to predict “permanently hotter summers” in the near future. And prominent climate researchers, usually shy on the issue, have been approaching the media in droves to voice their concern about the recent spate of extreme weather in the U.S. Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, underscored their warnings on a recent interview with PBS:

I don’t think there has been anything quite like this before….

You look out the window and you see climate change in action. This is the way it gets manifested…now we’re in the peak of the heat season and now we’re going outside the realm of conditions previously experienced. And so that’s when the damage really comes extreme and we get all these wildfires, houses have been burned, tremendous damage to the environment, and maybe some other consequences to come. These are all manifestations of climate change that we expect to see more of as time goes on.

It’s easy to break an individual record because the weather system happens to be at that particular location. With an unchanging climate you expect that the number of highs and the number of low temperature records are about the same. And that was the case in the 1950′s, 60′s and 70′s. And then by the 2000′s, we were breaking high temperature records at a ratio of 2 to 1 over cold temperature records. But this year, we’ve been breaking high temperature records at a rate of about 10 to 1. Ironically, there are still some cool spots — mainly in the Pacific Northwest and cold temperature records continue to be broken. So breaking records is not an indication of climate change, but breaking records at a rate of 10 to 1 versus the cold records, that’s a clear indication of climate change.

This is a view of the future, so watch out.

Trenberth’s final warning ought to echo with us all.

The amount of damage these types of extreme weather events can do physically and mentally is enormous. For me personally, it means I cannot come to work because my daycare provider is without power, ­stifling my productivity. For my neighborhood, it means the cost of overtime crews and lost food and heat-related illnesses. For the region, it means massive human suffering and death as the number of people who have died from storm or heat-related illness continues rising.

The weather forecast doesn’t look too good either. The heat wave is not over and more storms are predicted. Washington, D.C. just tied a record for eight straight days with temperatures reaching or exceeding 95 degrees.

Stay well friends – and once the chaos is over, let us know how you’re faring with extreme weather in your neighborhood. Drop us a line and tell us what you are doing to spread the word that the time to organize and act on climate change is now.

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Communications Intern Prashanth Kamalakanthan contributed to this blog post.

Capitol photo credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Fire photo credit: Tim Rasmussen/The Denver Post
Tropical Storm Debby photo credit: CBS News
U.S. Drought Monitor photo credit: University of Nebraska Lincoln
Monsoon photo credit: Anupam Nath/AP

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