In the United States, the year 2022 will be noted for its severe storms and flooding as well as its harsh heat waves and droughts.
By October, the U.S. had seen 15 disasters with an average cost of more than US$1 billion in damage each. From Texas to Maine, there were numerous severe winter storms at the beginning of the year that affected tens of millions of people and left major damage in their wake. Then, in March, 233 tornadoes were reported, breaking the previous record.
Five 1,000-year rainfall events happened over the course of five weeks in the summer, resulting in destructive and occasionally fatal flash floods in St. Louis, eastern Kentucky, southern Illinois, California’s Death Valley, and Dallas. Mississippi’s severe flooding knocked out Jackson’s problematic water supply for weeks. Large portions of Yellowstone National Park had to be evacuated due to a historic flood in Montana caused by persistent rain and melting snow.
Hurricanes Ian and Fiona battered Florida and Puerto Rico in the fall, dumping up to 2 feet (6.6 meters) of rain in some places and bringing a fatal, catastrophic storm surge. One of the most expensive hurricanes in American history was Ian. A storm also battered the 1,600-kilometer (1,000 mi) Alaskan coast.
While much rainfall put some areas in danger, high heat and inadequate precipitation increased concerns in other areas.
Many regions of the country experienced extended heat waves that broke temperature records. In the midst of the worst drought the Southwestern United States has seen across at least 1,200 years, wildfires burned in Arizona and New Mexico.
The Mississippi River in Memphis was so low due to drought in the fall that barges couldn’t pass without further dredging and upstream water releases. This delayed the transportation of grain during the crucial harvest season. As the water levels in the major reservoirs approached dangerously low levels, officials along the Colorado River contemplated even stricter water use restrictions.
When It Came to Climatic Catastrophes, the United States Was Scarcely Alone.
Over one-third of Pakistan was submerged by record monsoon rains, which killed over 1,500 people. Long-lasting heat waves and droughts in India and China damaged electrical infrastructure, dried up rivers, and jeopardized the food security of billions of people. In South Africa, Brazil, and Nigeria, widespread flooding and mudslides caused by severe rains also claimed hundreds of lives.
Heat waves over Europe caused record-breaking temperatures in Britain and other regions, severe droughts, low river flows that hampered shipping, and wildfires in numerous locations. According to the United Nations, a large portion of East Africa is still suffering from the worst multiyear drought in more than 40 years, making millions of people vulnerable to food shortages and hunger.
The frequency and severity of such catastrophic events are rising, indicating that this is not just a freak year.
Climate change is Intensifying These Disasters
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most current assessment of the global climate indicated significant increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme temperature and precipitation events, which in turn has increased the frequency of droughts and floods.
Despite an increasing ability to control climate risks, extreme flooding and droughts are also becoming deadlier and more expensive, according to a report released in 2022. The fact that today’s extreme disasters frequently outpace local governments’ capacity to manage them is one factor.
By definition, extreme occurrences don’t happen very often. There is a 1% probability that a flood of a century will occur in any given year. Therefore, such phenomena are a blatant sign of a changing climatic condition when they happen more frequently and with greater intensity.
Climate Models Showed These Risks Were Coming
A large portion of this is fully understood and is reliably reflected by climate models.
More extremes result from a change in temperature distribution as the climate warms. For instance, a 1 degree Celsius increase in the annual average temperature corresponds to a 1.2 to 1.9 degree Celsius (2.1 to 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit) increase in the annual maximum temperature.
Additionally, the atmosphere and ocean’s motion are altered as a result of global warming. The global wind is caused by the temperature differential between the equator and the poles. The lessened temperature difference causes the global winds to weaken and the jet stream to become more meandering as the polar areas warm much faster than the equator.
Some of these modifications can lead to the development of atmospheric blocking and persistent high-pressure systems, which can result in more extreme heat waves. Examples include the heat domes that occurred in the West in September and the Southern Plains and South in June.
Positive Feedback Can Increase Warming Even More.
For instance, greater temperatures have a tendency to dry up the soil, and lower soil moisture lowers the land’s capacity for heat storage and makes it simpler to heat up. More severe droughts and wildfires are brought on by increased evaporation and lower precipitation in some areas, both of which are caused by frequent and prolonged heat waves.
The ability of the atmosphere to hold moisture increases by around 7% each degree Celsius. The heavier rainfall episodes are a result of the elevated humidity.
In addition, latent heat is fuel for storm systems.
The New Abnormal
the significant quantity of energy that water vapor releases when it condenses to liquid water. The latent heat in storm systems is further enhanced by an increase in atmospheric moisture content, resulting in a stronger storm. Extremely heavy or ongoing rain causes an increase in flooding and landslides, which have disastrous social and economic repercussions.
Even while it is challenging to explicitly correlate certain extreme events to climate change, it is tough to deny the changing state of our climate when these purportedly unusual phenomena occur more frequently in a warming world.
Due to the increase in the frequency of these extreme climate occurrences, this year may offer a glimpse into the near future.
But to claim that this is the new normal is false. It implies that we have arrived at a new stable state, which is untrue. This trend toward increasingly catastrophic events will persist if major efforts are not made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Professor of Geology and Environmental Geosciences at the University of Dayton, Shuang-Ye Wu
Shuang-Ye Wu has reported no relevant relationships beyond their academic appointment, including any companies or organizations that would benefit from this publication. She also does not consult for, own shares of, or receive funding from any of these entities.