The growing prevalence of extreme weather

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TWH – The weather has become increasingly unpredictable. Droughts, floods, hurricanes, and wildfires dominate headlines around the world. Enmeshed in the web of life, those disasters have co-evolved with this planet and many Pagans often read the signs of the Earth to understand our role in it.

Fire tornado (Loyalton, Calif. 2020) – Image credit: Katelynn & Jordan Hewlett, AP –  CC BY-SA 4.0

Research quoted in The New York Times shows industrial extraction and burning of fossil fuels are driving climate change. Industrial-scale extraction and burning have only occurred within the last few centuries. Life depends on a certain amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It’s a delicate balance that burning fossil fuels has disrupted.

Climate change leads to droughts, flooding, and wildfires

Climate change affects parts of the world differently. Some parts of the planet are becoming arider and others wetter. These patterns may not last. By the time it is known for certain if these patterns are permanent, it will be too late to do anything about it.

Climate change models are largely accurate. For over a century, scientists have theorized that increases in greenhouse gases would trap the earth’s heat. For years, the data has been proven to be consistent with that theory.

Trapped heat would drive temperatures upwards causing the air to become warmer. Warmer air holds more moisture than cooler air.

The increased capacity for storing moisture increases evaporation. In some areas, evaporation will exceed precipitation. The soil dries out, droughts occur which leads to dead plants and trees, creating kindling for wildfires.

NPR reported that hard and dry soil has difficulty absorbing water. If intense downpours occur in short periods of time, the rainfall can overwhelm drainage systems.

Heatwaves

According to the News Observer, temperatures in Arizona came close to 48.9º C (120º F) in the June heatwave. Large birds dropped from the sky. They had heatstroke. One golden eagle dropped onto an interstate. It appeared “delirious” and unable to fly. An animal rescue organization reported taking in 20 raptors each day in that heatwave.

As TWH reported in August, heatwaves in the Pacific Northwest early this summer caused shoreline rocks to reach a temperature of 122o F (50o C), and effectively “cooked” shellfish and other small marine life to death. Researchers estimated that hundreds of millions if not a billion deaths of sea life occurred during the heatwave.

Droughts

Drought now covers about 47% of the continental US, excluding Alaska. These droughts run from the Upper Midwest to the West Coast. In mid-March, a hydroelectric dam in Minnesota had to stop production for a week. The water level in the Mississippi was too low for the pump to work.

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows that a drought covers all the Central Valley of California. According to a U.S. Geological Survey publication, the Central Valley produces about 25 percent of food in the US. A drought in that region threatens the global food supply and food prices.  North Dakota ranchers can no longer grow enough feed for their cattle. They had to sell off their cattle before the animals starve.

Droughts are also occurring in South America. The Paraná River now flows 3.2 m (10.5 ft.) below normal, its lowest level since the 1940s. The 60 cities along the river have started to run low on water. That river runs through Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina.

Wildfires

Dixie Fire in Plumas County and Butte County produced a pyrocumulus cloud, which forms when scorched air and strong winds within a fire meet moisture in the atmosphere. On July 22, the Dixie Fire surpassed 100,000 acres, becoming the second California wildfire in 2021 to surpass that acreage milestone. Image credit: Frank Schulenburg – CC BY-SA 4.0 

Drought, high heat, and dead vegetation are driving the increase in wildfires. Misguided fire suppression strategies have also contributed to the increase.

Large wildfires are now occurring in the U.S. West. On September 8, Chief  Thom Porter, an official with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said that two million acres had already burned. He continued “large fire activity [is likely] to continue for the next three months.”

Floods

Intense bursts of rainfall are replacing steady mild rain. NPR reported that “The amount of rain falling during the heaviest storms increased by almost a third in the Southeast U.S. between 1958 and 2016.”

When intense bursts of rain meet hard, dry soil, the soil cannot absorb it. Flash flooding occurs. Drainage systems become overwhelmed.

In August, 43.2 cm (17 inches) of rain fell in 24 hours in middle Tennessee. Water levels rose quickly, and powerfully. Twenty-one people died.

The impact of flooding from hurricane Fred in Western North Carolina in mid-August devastated the towns of Cruso and Canton in Haywood county and left six dead. Waters from rivers rose as much as three feet in the space of 30 to 45 minutes in some cases, resulting in over 200 swift-water rescues.

Hurricane Ida deluged New York and New Jersey. on Sep. 1, 2021. In Newark, scientists measured 8.2 cm (3.24 in.) of rain falling in one hour. This set a new record. In New York, 8 cm (3.15 in.) of rain fell in one hour on Sep. 1. It also set a new record. Ten days earlier, Tropical Storm Henri had set the previous record, 4.9 cm (1.94 in.) per hour.

Hurricane Ida caused 82 deaths in the US. It struck Louisiana on Aug. 29.  On that date, 16 years ago, Hurricane Katrina also made landfall.

Louisiana suffered massive property destruction and power loss from flooding and high winds. As of today, some 100,000 people are still without power, and some may not see restoration until as late as September 29. And while power may be restored to some of the most heavily impacted by then, schools that are in areas like the river and coastal parishes of Terrebonne could require building repairs keeping students out of the classroom until mid-October.

Aiguo Dai, University of Albany, said, “Storm intensity is increasing much faster than the average change in precipitation, and it’s the intensity that really matters, because that’s what we design our infrastructure to handle.”

New York City’s drainage system couldn’t handle it. People have designed urban infrastructure based on assumptions about climate that no longer hold true.

The Dutch have a different approach to flood control and water management. This summer’s floods in Germany and Belgium killed 220. The same floods did not have the same impact in the nearby Netherlands.

 

The Dutch rejected traditional dams in favor of creating a 1,300-acre flood plain. They based their design on the “river’s old overflow channels.” It worked. The Maas River swelled to epic proportions, but urban areas were spared. When it’s not preventing flooding, people use the floodplain as a park.

Today reports from London showed widespread examples of the flooding that was affecting central and southern parts of England. Even the Tower bridge was flooded by torrential downpours this morning.

The burden of climate change does not fall equally

The way climate change is experienced does not impact or threaten everyone equally. It poses a greater threat to the poor, people of color, and those who live in rural areas.

NPR reported large differences in temperatures linked to wealth. On tree-lined streets, temperatures rose to98o F (36.7o C). On streets near parking lots and highways, temperatures reached 124o F (51.1o C). In homeless encampments. temperatures rose to 135o F (57.2o C).

Rural areas also face an unequal burden. The ability of fire trucks to maneuver in rural areas may be more difficult due to narrow and less accessible roads. Small, rural towns also often lack the resources to survive repeated “natural disasters.”

While poor and rural areas tend to have a much lower carbon footprint than do more affluent areas, they are often more likely to suffer the extreme effects of climate change.