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How Climate Change Is Fueling Extreme Weather

Climate
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.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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