It’s Real and It’s Here

Catastrophic wildfires, record heat waves, bizarre storms and blistering droughts are exactly what climate experts predicted

Photo: US Air Force

Photo: US Air Force

If you thought 2011 had weird and wild weather, brace yourself because 2012 may well break the record. 

The heat got an early start this year with the hottest March since record-keeping began in 1895, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Climatic Data Center. Then breaking records from Denver to Nashville, the mercury soared past 100 degrees F, with May recording the warmest temperatures ever for the Northern Hemisphere, and July entering the books as the hottest single month ever in the continental United States. 

Highways buckled from the heat in several states. An airplane even sank into softened tarmac at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. At press time, the biggest U.S. drought since the 1950s was still withering crops in the Corn Belt, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture had designated 1,670 counties as drought disaster zones. The Mississippi River—last year swamped by historic flooding—is running so low this year that barge traffic has been halted.

In addition, a massive storm complex in late June traveled 700 miles in 10 hours, leaving 22 people dead, 4.3 million without power, and a path of destruction that stretched from Illinois to New Jersey. In the space of two weeks that same month, Colorado got hit with the two most destructive wildfires in its history, burning 257 and 356 homes on the outskirts of Fort Collins and Colorado Springs respectively. As of mid-August, seven different western states were battling wildfires that exceeded 100,000 acres. 

Also this summer, scientists—supported by the National Science Foundation, NOAA, NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy and other agencies and universities, including Colorado and California-Berkeley—released a study on the 2000-2004 drought in the western half of the continent, saying global warming was the cause. They also say we should get used to it because it’s about to become the “new normal.” 

And it’s not just in the United States. Sea ice in the Arctic is retreating at a rate on pace to beat the 2007 record low. An iceberg twice the size of Manhattan broke free in July in Greenland—which is warming five times faster than the average global temperatures, according to the National Snow and Ice Center in Boulder, Colorado. Greenland also witnessed another important milestone this year, when scientists detected surface melting across virtually the island’s entire ice sheet.

All this, and we’ve increased the Earth’s temperature by a mere 0.8 degrees C. (about 1.44 degrees F). And we continue to pour record amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. 

“In the second half of this century, it’s likely we’ll be wishing it was only as hot as it was in 2012—or we still had storms like we did in the early 2000s,” says Aimee Delach, Defenders’ senior policy analyst for climate change adaptation and author of a new Defenders’ report Harnessing Nature: The Ecosystem Approach to Climate-Change Preparedness. That’s because even if we reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we are spewing today, the carbon dioxide previously released continues to overheat the atmosphere. 

As climate change continues, these events are predicted to deliver even deadlier punches in coming years. One of the most pronounced impacts of climate change is “intensification of the water cycle,” says Delach. This means warmer air speeds up evaporation and also holds more moisture, so the dry areas get drier and the storms get bigger and more intense. “We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that the weather changes occurring across the country are like a bad storm that will eventually blow over,” she adds. “Tornados, floods and wildfires can destroy entire communities and will continue to do so unless we take steps to prepare ourselves. We must take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But we must also prepare for the changes that we know are coming, and in fact are already here.”

To that end, preserving and rebuilding natural defenses—like flood plains, wetlands and forests that help with erosion protection, flood control and water filtration—may well be the most cost-effective, practical and sustainable ways to protect American communities and natural resources, says Delach. The Defenders’ report offers recommendations and case studies of communities around the country that are already working to lessen the destructive effects of climate change. “It shows we can protect ourselves from extreme weather events by protecting, restoring and strengthening the natural world around us—even as it changes,” says Delach. 

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