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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Climate Change Is Pushing Record-Setting Disasters

Hurricane Delta. NASA image.

George Harvey

It is amazing what an increase of 1°C (1.8°F) can do. As the world has warmed by just that amount, disasters have grown fast. And the disasters are clearly more numerous and worse because of a little bit more heat. According to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, the costs of disasters in the period of 2000-2019 were 182% of what they had been for 1990-1999, adjusted for inflation (http://bit.ly/UNDRR-report-2020).

A large part of the problem has to do with the fact that over 90% of the additional heat that hits the Earth is trapped in the ocean. In some places, the water is much warmer because of this. Parts of the Gulf of Mexico have been hovering at 6°F to 8°F higher than normal during the summer.

That heat makes water evaporate faster, and because the air is warmer than usual, it can hold more moisture. The hot water also heats the air above it, making it rise faster, and the up-drafts fuel hurricanes. The combination makes what might have been a much less powerful storm in years gone by grow instead into a major hurricane. And that is what we have been seeing.

When the weather people who name storms run through the alphabet’s names, they continue with Greek letters for names, starting with Alpha. This year is the second time that has happened, and the first time a storm named for a Greek letter has hit the U.S. That was Hurricane Delta, which made landfall in a part of Louisiana called Cameron Parish. (In Louisiana, counties are called parishes.)

Cameron Parish is particularly interesting because it was the place Hurricane Laura made landfall on August 27, 2020, only 25 miles west of where Delta did. The first of these storms tore the area apart, covering the land with debris, and the second turned the debris into projectiles to slam those buildings that had survived.

Cameron Parish is also interesting because of two other things. One is that a couple of years back its residents learned that they would probably all have to move in the next 25 years because of a combination of land subsidence, due to oil being pumped out from under them, and rising seas, due to climate change. The second thing that makes Cameron Parish interesting in all of this is that 88.2% of its voters chose Donald Trump in the 2016 election. This year, Trump seems to have received 91% of the votes there.

More storms have followed Delta, each pushing the record for the number of storms in the hurricane season higher. Hurricane Eta hit Florida. And then came Iota, the most powerful storm of the 2020 hurricane season so far; it hit Nicaragua.

Though the hurricane season does not end until November 30, this year has already seen eleven named storms hit the U.S. coast. This sets a new record. The old record was eight, which was set in 1916 and tied in 2004.

It is not just named storms doing more damage because of climate change.

Trees burning in the Creek Fire. C. Tolmie, CAL FIRE.

We are seeing records set by weather events on land. There is no doubt that the people in Phoenix, Arizona have noticed a hotter year in 2020. On October 14, the city set a new record for 144 days in a single year with temperatures above 100°F. Fifty of those hot days had temperatures of 110°F or warmer.

While 1°C drives storms carrying more water over the seas, it also accounts for both higher temperatures and lower humidity through many inland areas. That combination dries out forests and wilderness. It also brings stronger winds. The result of parched land and high temperatures is that wildfires start more easily, and stronger winds spread them. We saw this earlier in 2020 in Australia, where January and February are summer months. Now, we are seeing it in the United States. As I write, eleven western states have had over 8.2 million acres burn. Very close to half of that amount is in California. (For reference, this is about 120% of the size of Vermont.)

Donald Trump said the western wildfires were the result of bad forest management rather than climate change. We might guess that he would blame climate change if he just stopped to consider that as head of the federal government, the majority of the land that burned was under his management. In some states, all of the fires burning as I write this are on federal land, according to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (http://bit.ly/CDP-fire-data).

The increases of wildfire severity we have seen fulfill logical expectations that climate change will make them worse. Of the twenty largest wildfires in the history of California, from the time that accurate records started to be kept in 1932, three happened in 68 years of the 1900s. Eleven were in the twenty years from 2000 through 2019, and six have happened in the single year of 2020. Of the six largest wildfires in California history, five were all burning at the same time in 2020.

It is really surprising what global warming of just 1°C can do. And we probably have another 1°C coming, if we act moderately quickly. If we don’t, it could be 2°C more, or even more than that.

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