Climate Change, Extreme Weather, and Rising Sea Levels This Summer in The United States Welcome to The New Normal

Climate Change, Extreme Weather, and Rising Sea Levels This Summer in The United States Welcome to The New Normal

Beginning with a massive flood in Montana brought on by torrential rain and melting snow, the summer of 2022 saw the destruction of roadways and the evacuation of large sections of Yellowstone National Park.

It culminated with a tropical cyclone that produced record-setting rainfall in southern California after a record-breaking heat wave in California and most of the West had strained the electricity grid to its limits and caused outages. Storm surges from a typhoon in Alaska and hurricane rains in Puerto Rico totaled over 30 inches. In the meantime, a megadrought in the Southwestern United States has been worse than anything the region has seen in at least 1,200 years, and flames have burned over California, Arizona, and New Mexico. In New Mexico, close to Albuquerque, a five-mile stretch of the Rio Grande dried up for the first time in 40 years. Many sections of the country saw record-breaking heat waves that lasted for days.

Five weeks apart in July and August, St. Louis, eastern Kentucky, southern Illinois, California’s Death Valley, and Dallas each saw 1,000-year rainfall storms, resulting in severe and occasionally fatal flash floods. There was also significant flooding in the states of Mississippi, Virginia, and West Virginia because of the heavy rains.

The United States Is Hardly Alone in Its Share of Climate Disasters

More than 1,500 people were killed as record monsoon rains flooded almost a third of Pakistan. Prolonged heat waves and droughts in India and China have depleted river supplies, wreaked havoc on electrical infrastructure, and put billions of people at risk of going hungry. Extreme heat waves across Europe have caused record temperatures in Britain and elsewhere, along with widespread drought and devastating wildfires. More than 400 people were killed by flooding and mudslides caused by heavy rainfall in South Africa. Seasonal summer may be over, but weather-related catastrophes will likely keep happening.

This isn’t an isolated summer of unusual weather; such extreme events have been happening more frequently and more intensely over time.

Climate Change Is Intensifying These Disasters

More frequent and intense droughts and floods have been reported as a result of climate change, according to the most current global climate assessment by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. While our ability to manage climate risks is increasing, a new study published in Nature indicated that extreme flooding and droughts are becoming more lethal and expensive. This is due to the fact that the intensified severity of extreme events brought on by climate change frequently surpasses the levels at which such management measures are intended to function.

The very definition of an extreme event makes it a very infrequent occurrence. There is a one percent possibility that a flood that occurs once in 100 years will strike in any given year. An indication of a climate in transition is the occurrence of such phenomena with increasing frequency and intensity. The term “global warming” can be deceiving since it suggests that the entire planet will get warmer as a result of increased human emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But it glosses over the fact that, as we saw this past summer, rising temperatures also contribute to a more violent world and more devastating climate disasters.

Climate Models Showed These Risks Were Coming

Many of these phenomena are well-understood and can be reliably recreated by climate models. Increases in temperature extremes are a result of changes in the distribution of temperatures brought on by global warming. Extreme temperature swings tend to be more dramatic than average temperature shifts. For instance, if the average temperature of the Earth were to rise by 1 degree Celsius, the highest temperature would rise by 1.2 to 1.9 degrees Celsius (2.1 to 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit).

Additional alterations to atmospheric and oceanic circulation are brought on by global warming’s effects on the vertical profile of the atmosphere and on temperature gradients from the equator to the poles. Wind around the world is propelled by the disparity in average temperatures between the equator and the poles. With a smaller temperature differential between the poles and the equator, global winds are weakened, and the jet stream becomes more variable as the polar areas warm at far faster rates than the equator.

Some of these alterations, such as long-lasting high-pressure systems, and blocking of the atmosphere, can foster more frequent and powerful heat waves. The Southern Plains and the South have heat domes in June, and the West does the same thing in September. Intensifying the initial heating is possible due to positive feedback. When temperatures rise, snow melts and reveals brown earth, which is more heat-receptive than the white stuff on top. Warming of the atmosphere also enhances its capacity to store water vapor, which is a potent greenhouse gas. Therefore, more water vapor in the air leads to more warmth. Higher temperatures tend to dry up the soil, and less soil moisture diminishes the land’s heat capacity, making it simpler to heat up.

These positive feedbacks further amplify the original warming, leading to further heat extremes. More frequent and protracted heat waves lead to increased evaporation, paired with lower precipitation in some locations, generating more severe droughts and more frequent wildfires.

Atmospheric moisture retention increases at a rate of around 7% per degree Celsius as the temperature rises. More precipitation falls as a result of the higher humidity. In addition, storm systems are driven by latent heat or the massive quantity of energy produced when water vapor condenses into liquid water. Increased moisture content in the atmosphere also improves latent heat in storm systems, boosting their strength. Extreme heavy or continuous rainfall leads to increased flooding and landslides, with disastrous social and economic effects.

Although it is challenging to explicitly relate certain extreme occurrences to climate change, it is tough to deny the changing state of our climate when these purportedly unusual phenomena occur with increasing frequency on a warming planet.

The new abnormal

This summer, then, might have been a preview of our near future, as these kinds of extreme climatic events become more frequent. This shouldn’t be seen as the new “normal,” though. This statement gives the false impression that we have arrived at a new stable condition.

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Without serious effort to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, this trend toward more intense events will continue. Things will keep getting worse, and this previous summer will become the norm a few years or decades down the line — and eventually, it will seem mild, like one of those “nice summers” we look back on fondly with nostalgia.

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