Global warming is speeding up, with temperatures not only rising but faster than ever. Every day, it seems, we get better at normalizing extreme weather. But it’s also harder to divide — even in places like New York, which once looked to residents like concrete fortresses against nature.
A month ago, when orange skies blanketed New York, it was a sign for many that this particular climate horror could no longer be conceptually quarantined as a local phenomenon of the American West, where tens of millions have already acclimated to living along the path of fire and every year breathing in some of its toxic smoke. That was normal for them, we New Yorkers thought, even though San Francisco turned a sunless dark amber for the first time only in 2020. It wasn’t normal for we, we told ourselves. Then, when the air quality index dropped from 405 back into the 100s again, in the weeks that followed, the joggers hit the pavement at their routine times, glad that the sky was just sickly hazy.
Last weekend, there were Hudson Valley streets transformed into swimming pools supercharged rain and ravines disgorging landslides that those in New York watched with a mixture of horror and false relief. The flood was “upstate,” we told ourselves, though by “state,” of course, we meant not even 50 miles north of town. It was so close that by Sunday morning, it seemed possible that the rains would bring a deluge to the city worse than anything in the past decade. The United States Military Academy at West Point was briefly inundated by a once-in-a-thousand-year climate event. And yet the deluge seemed so daily that you could easily miss the warning — as I did, not even realizing the threat of a storm until a few hours before it hit.
It is always comforting to believe that disasters are far away, unfolding elsewhere, but increasingly to do so means to define ever smaller increments of space as remote. In this case, New Yorkers drew solace from the erratic path of a single local storm system. The rains pulled only a few miles west, Sunday, sparing New York and instead cougar Vermontwhere government buildings acquired new moats, High Streets became canal citiesand ski resorts were flattened from brown by muddy waste. People were kayaking through Montpelier, and the Winooski River rose to levels not seen since a catastrophic flood in 1927. The governor had to walk his way to an open road.
All things considered, it didn’t even seem that strange — we’re seeing so many more climate disasters now, with global average temperatures breaking records every day lately. It was terrible floods this week in Himachal Pradesh, in India, where several bridges collapsed and others carrying dozens of cars and trucks appeared to be. Japan experienced the “heaviest rain ever”, and in Spain, floodwaters carried cars backwards through traffic at high speed, their drivers simply watched helplessly from the roof where they took refuge as the water began to fill the cabin. A month-long heat wave centered on Texas and Mexico and spread outward to Miami, which, on Monday, reached heat indices north of 100 degrees. for 30 straight days. In Death Valley, California, this week temperatures may reach or exceed the global record of 130 degrees Fahrenheit, set as recently as 2021. In El Paso, there hasn’t been a day that hasn’t hit 100. for weeks.
From the coast of Florida, the water was almost as hot as a hot tub — 95 degrees according to one buoy, 97 degrees according to another. It was just last month when life-threatening heat indices as high as 125 simply parked in Puerto Rico for days on end. According to coral bleaching forecast published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, exists will likely whiten all over the Caribbean this summer. It is not clear how many will survive. By some estimates, up to 50 percent of the world’s oceans will experience sea heat conditions this summer; normally the figure is about 10 percent.
There are also the Canadian fires that continue to burn on a non-laurel trajectory, although the smoke has more recently dispersed north and across to Europe rather than directly into the airways of the American Northeast and Midwest. In the first 25 days of June, more land burned in Quebec than burned there over the previous 20 years combined. Across Canada as a whole, more than 22 million acres have now burnedmore than five times the record-breaking 2020 California fire season and more than double the totals of the most destructive US seasons of the past 60 years.
But with New York skies simply unseasonably gray, we moved on. As my colleague David Gelles noted this week, writing from his own flooded home, recent research suggests that we may accept weather extremes as normal within two years — a grim prophecy of accommodation to disaster as a form of adaptation.
A year ago, as potentially deadly wet-bulb temperatures engulfed parts of India and Pakistan where hundreds of millions lived, I wrote a long essay titled “Can You Even Call Deadly Heat ‘Extreme’ Anymore?” This spring and summer, a deadly heat wave swept the subcontinent again, delivering temperatures regularly above 110 degrees Fahrenheit but generating considerably less media attention in the West, albeit this time the official death toll. was higher.
A new analysis from last summer in Europe suggested that heat caused more than 61,000 deaths – a striking figure all the more remarkable for approaching the 70,000 dead in the European heat wave of 2003, long described as a worst-case scenario. In the aftermath, it was often said that those heat deaths changed Europe, which would never again be so blinded by extreme temperatures. But the 61,000 deaths last year passed with barely a murmur. This summer is only halfway over, and Europe has set new temperature records almost every week. Presumably we won’t even know the death effects for a while, at which point even the extremes of this summer will have passed into the rearview mirror, where they too will look like some sort of familiar form.
In fact, what has perhaps struck me most this summer is how often global warming has caused what appears to be an unthinkable extreme – and is then contextualized, by careful climate scientists, as simply normal and predictable. Normally extreme, that is, and predictably scary.
Last month, when mind-bending charts of anomalous ocean temperatures were feverishly circulated on social media, it produced something of a “reassuring” response from some of the world’s most respected and concerned climate scientists.
This was probably not a step change, they said, or a tipping point, or what is often called by those most caught up in apocalyptic climate panic a “final shock.” The record ocean temperatures did not need to be explained away as a sudden effect of a 2020 ban on sulfur pollution, which has a locally concentrated cooling effect when emitted by cargo ships; or by slowing down the temperature regulation system of the ocean; or by some other unexpected and therefore alarming turn in the path of the climate system as it marched further outside the range of temperatures that enclosed all human history. It may have had something to do with the amount of Saharan dust circulating across the ocean. But mostly, they said, it was just climate change.
In the end, the message is not so reassuring. The experience of the near future will mean fairly regular encounters with seemingly unprecedented events, often quite accurately predicted, but which so few wanted to believe could ever come true. Fewer still want to believe they could strike so close to home.
David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells), a writer for Opinion and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth.”