The Extreme Weather Threat That's All Around Us
This is not a good time to be a climate change denier. After a record-breaking year of dangerous weather in 2012—following a destructive year in 2011—scientific reports are rolling out this month showing extreme weather in the U.S. is on the rise, threatening Americans today with bone-bleaching drought, fueling more devastating floods and violent storms, and posing threats of even greater weather disasters in the future. Climate change is suddenly all around us.
Last week the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration released a report ranking 2012 as the hottest year ever recorded in the lower 48 states—and one of the most volatile in terms of extreme weather events. Then this week came the draft of the National Climate Assessment, a four-year comprehensive study involving hundreds of scientists and experts, that listed a myriad of menacing climate threats Americans are facing now and in the near future. The draft report unequivocally blamed human activities—mainly the burning of fossil fuels—for driving climate change’s rising environmental, health and economic toll in the U.S.
On top of all these reports, a newly-released interactive NRDC map shows that 2012 extreme weather events broke 3,527 monthly records for heat, rain and snow across the U.S. in one of the costliest natural disaster years ever recorded. Insurance giant MunichRe estimates that an astounding 90 percent of the world's insured losses occurred in the U.S. last year, much of it due to the devastating drought across much of the country’s midsection and to Superstorm Sandy, the epic northeastern hurricane that struck in November.
“2012’s unparalleled record-setting heat demonstrates what climate change looks like,” said NRDC Senior Scientist Kim Knowlton. “This extreme weather has awoken communities across the country to the need for preparedness and protection. We know how to reduce local risks, improve our lives and create more resilient communities. Now our leaders must act.”
The new interactive mapping tool tracks events in individual states and allows anyone to easily follow the thousands of weather records that were shattered across the nation last year from Alaska to Florida. Americans suffered from unprecedented heat waves, downpours, floods and fires, extreme weather events predicted by scientists as part of a warming world and a changing climate that will pose greater health hazards in our future.
I had a chance to see some of the weather anomalies up close and personal this summer in several heavily impacted states, including Colorado, which is one of the states really feeling the heat. According to NRDC's report, Colorado had record-breaking heat in 33 counties, with 80 broken heat records. It also had 43 large wildfires, including the massive Waldo Canyon fire that killed two and scorched nearly 350 homes near Colorado Springs when it roared out of the Rocky Mountain foothills after a period of intense 100-degree heat and dry weather last June.
Out in eastern Colorado, farmers and ranchers are battling one of the most serious droughts in memory. While traveling with my NRDC colleague Bob Deans, we interviewed cattle rancher and wheat farmer Jensen Stulp, who lives in the farming community of Lamar, CO, where summertime temps hit 111 three days in a row last summer. Here’s how Bob wrote about Jensen's description of the drought;
"There is a change in the weather, no doubt," he said, recalling boyhood summers when he ran barefoot through pastures of rich buffalo grass. To do so now would leave bare feet in ribbons, sliced by thistles, roots and stones.
"I'd say we had a drought year maybe one in every four or five years, and now we have a good year every four or five years," he said. "We've had to adjust to what the environment's been giving us, in terms of more drought, more drought, more drought."
That's meant increasingly assertive efforts at stewardship that has become an article of faith for Stulp.
"If you don't take care of the land," he said, "the land can't take care of you."
Jensen Stulp in his fields in eastern Colorado Photo: Melanie Blanding
Continuing east, we traveled though the baked farmlands of Kansas, where many streams and creek beds were bone-dry due to the blistering heat that turned corn and wheat fields to a sandy-colored dust, useless to the farmers who were greeted by a blast furnace of dry western winds with each sunrise. Some of the farmers we spoke to agreed the region was getting dryer and hotter—and that made farming even more of a difficult proposition in the arid agricultural regions out west, where groundwater supplies are drying up.
Farmer Rod Berning described it this way when we videoed him standing in the noonday sun in his drought-damaged corn field in western Kansas. “The climate is changing, because you know the storms aren’t coming as frequently as they did. There’s no normal anymore, it’s either feast or famine is what it’s turned out to be, and it really affects you because day by day you don’t really know…”
Shriveled corn in western Kansas, 2012 Photo: Melanie Blanding
The science and the data are increasingly clear. What’s happening to farmers and ranchers is also happening to homeowners and residents in the northeast, fishermen along the Gulf coast and to timber operators in Alaska. The climate is changing, it’s getting warmer and dryer in some areas and wetter and more flood-prone in others. Extreme weather is the winner in this game of fossil fuel addition, and we are all losers if we don’t change our dirty-energy habits.
It’s time to stop listening to those who deny what we see all around us. Listen instead to the scientists and experts who warn about climate threats with increasing alarm. We need to switch to clean energy and force our political leaders to protect the ones they really serve. Because every day we wait compounds the risk of even more dangerous weather ahead.
That’s a forecast no one wants to wake up to.