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How Climate Change Is Fueling Extreme Weather

Climate
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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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"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

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"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

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Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

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"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


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