Extreme weather suddenly seems to happen everywhere at once.
The heat index in parts of Arizona, Texas and Florida will exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit today. Much of the Midwest is in severe drought. Areas in New York and Vermont only saw as much rain in a day as is typical for all of July, and subsequent flash floods washed away homes, cars and bridges. Wildfire smoke has recently blanketed the Midwest and Northeast — sometimes giving American cities the worst air quality in the world.
These events point to one danger of global warming: simultaneous climate disasters can play off each other, exacerbating extreme weather and straining limited resources. Consider some examples:
For years, the United States and Australia have shared firefighting resources because their fire seasons do not typically overlap. In 2019 and 2020, they were instead forced to compete for personnel and equipment as California dealt with a bushfire season that stretched into its winter, while much of Australia burned during its so-called Black Summer.
In the western United States, both more heat and unusually dry conditions have caused the megadrought of recent years. The heat and dryness also served as fuel for more frequent and more severe fires. In both cases, the two conditions, aggravated by climate change, have joined each other to cause more disasters.
Last year, a heat wave in Pakistan pushed temperatures above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Then floods submerged more than a third of the nation. The back-to-back events strained resources in an already impoverished country.
States often support each other during natural disasters by sending equipment or opening the homes of residents to people who have been displaced. But New York cannot so easily help neighboring Vermont as both states battle floods. (Vermont received help from North Carolina, Michigan and Connecticut, among others.)
We should expect more such problems ahead, largely propelled by climate change.
Worse is to come
This year was really unusual for the climate. The chart below shows global surface air temperatures since 1979. The daily global temperature set a record last week, and it could again in the coming weeks.
Climate change is one culprit. Some of the current problems also stem from the periodic weather pattern known as El Niño, which causes temperatures to rise. It will likely subside next year, bringing somewhat cooler conditions, before returning several years later. When it does, it could bring even worse disasters than this year’s El Niño because climate change will continue to warm the planet all the time.
“Extremes are already worse because of human-made climate change,” said Kim Cobb, the director of Brown University’s Institute for Environment and Society. “And they will get worse with every further increase in warming.”
Humans cannot prevent El Niño, but they can do something about climate change. Anything that reduces greenhouse gases can help. While much of the world has already taken steps to cut human emissions, experts continue to say that progress has been too slow to stop or reverse global warming.
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