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How Climate Change Is Fueling Extreme Weather

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How Climate Change Is Fueling Extreme Weather
Pixabay

By Emilie Karrick Surrusco

Across the globe, extreme weather is becoming the new normal.


Torrential rains and flooding. Record hurricanes. Destructive wildfires. Deadly heatwaves and drought. From season to season and year to year, weather events that were once rare occurrences are now increasingly commonplace.

Human activity is causing these rapid changes. When fossil fuels are burned for electricity, heat, and transportation, carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that traps solar radiation, is released into our atmosphere. Over the past century, massive increases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have caused the temperature on our planet to rise.

That spike in global temperatures is fueling climate disasters that will only get worse unless we take action. Experts say we have just over a decade to avoid climate catastrophe. Read on to learn more—and find out what we're doing to help the planet change course.

Extreme Heat Gets Hotter 

As global temperatures rise, the hottest temperatures — and the number of areas impacted by extreme heat — are also rising. That means more scorching hot days in more places. Take the Texas cities of Austin and Houston, for example. Over the past 50 years, Austin has seen the number of days with temperatures above 100°F increase by one month, while Houston has recorded an additional month with temperatures above 95°F. Through 2100, scientists predict hotter temperatures and more frequent — and intense — heat waves in every region of the U.S., as explained by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Drought Conditions Persist 

Higher temperatures also lead to drier conditions. When global temperatures rise, moisture evaporates from both our planet's waterbodies and soil. Droughts in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world have become more severe — and lasted longer — thanks to climate change. In fact, the American West is currently in the midst of a "mega drought" that ranks among the worst in the past 1,200 years, according to a recent study by scientists at Columbia University's Earth Institute.

p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; line-height: 38.4px; font: 17.0px Times; color: #000000; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000; background-color: #ffffff} span.s1 {font-kerning: none}  Wildfires Burn Longer and Wider

Wildfires have always been a natural part of life in the western U.S. However, as this region grows hotter and drier, wildfires are growing in size, ferocity and speed. Fifteen of the 20 largest fires in California history have occurred since 2000 — and it's no coincidence that the state's hottest and driest years were in the same timeframe. The Camp Fire in 2018 — California's most destructive, and deadliest, wildfire in history — destroyed an average of one football field worth of land every three seconds and killed 68 people, according to Cal Fire. Scientists predict that the Camp Fire won't be record-setting for long.

p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; line-height: 38.4px; font: 24.0px Helvetica; color: #0e0e0e; -webkit-text-stroke: #0e0e0e} span.s1 {font-kerning: none} Warmer Temperatures Drive Increases in Precipitation

Warmer air increases evaporation, which means that our atmosphere contains an increasing amount of water vapor for storms to sweep up and turn into rain or snow. Just as drier areas are likely to get drier with rising global temperatures, those areas of the world that have historically trended toward heavy precipitation will only get wetter. In the contiguous United States, rainfall in 2018 broke records, with an average of 36.2 inches falling over a 12-month period – more than 6 inches above average.

p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; line-height: 38.4px; font: 24.0px Helvetica; color: #0e0e0e; -webkit-text-stroke: #0e0e0e} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; line-height: 38.4px; font: 24.0px Helvetica; color: #0e0e0e; -webkit-text-stroke: #0e0e0e; min-height: 29.0px} span.s1 {font-kerning: none} Sea Level Rise Causes Flooding

As the planet warms, ocean waters are also warming — and expanding. At the same time, warmer temperatures are causing land ice — think glaciers and ice caps — to melt, which is adding water to the world's oceans. As a result, average global sea level has increased eight inches in the last 150 years. Right now, the Atlantic coast of the United States and the Gulf of Mexico are experiencing some of the highest sea level rise in the world, which, combined with record rainfall, has led to catastrophic flooding.

p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; line-height: 38.4px; font: 24.0px Helvetica; color: #0e0e0e; -webkit-text-stroke: #0e0e0e} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; line-height: 38.4px; font: 24.0px Helvetica; color: #0e0e0e; -webkit-text-stroke: #0e0e0e; min-height: 29.0px} span.s1 {font-kerning: none} Hurricanes Are Becoming More Intense

Hurricanes draw their energy from warm ocean water, which means that hurricanes are just getting stronger. In the future, we can expect to see more hurricanes along the lines of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the islands of Dominica, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico in 2017. Officials estimated that 3,000 people died in the aftermath of this catastrophic storm that dropped nearly a quarter of the Puerto Rico's annual rainfall in one day and unleashed maximum sustained winds of 175 mph.

p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; line-height: 38.4px; font: 24.0px Helvetica; color: #0e0e0e; -webkit-text-stroke: #0e0e0e} span.s1 {font-kerning: none} What Can We Do?

Americans across the political spectrum are feeling the urgency of our climate deadline and calling for action on a scale that matches the threat. People want a healthy environment and a thriving economy.

Unfortunately, fossil fuel companies are doing everything in their power to hold us back. They're intent on burning every last ounce of oil, coal, and gas — even if it means the planet burns, too. And the Trump administration is doing everything in its power to help them.

Earthjustice is leading the fight against the administration's environmental rollbacks in the courts — and we're winning. Over the past year, the court has ruled in our favor more than 80 percent of the time. These victories rein in lawless giveaways to industry and level the playing field for clean energy to outcompete fossil fuels.

This fight to preserve a livable planet touches everyone. Working together, we can do more to break free from fossil fuels and build a healthy, sustainable world for future generations. Together, we can lead systemic change in service of the earth and justice for its people.

To find out more about what we're doing to fight for a healthy planet, sign up for our newsletter.

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A Michigan bald eagle proved that nature can still triumph over machines when it attacked and drowned a nearly $1,000 government drone.

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By Tara Lohan

Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."

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Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.

For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.

"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."

To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.

"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."

So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.

Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.