The American summer has been odd and nasty. The dwindling summer has been a vivid demonstration of the increasing climate problem, with scientists warning that worse is to come. Examples include the dystopian orange skies over New York and the tragic immolation of a historic coastal town in Hawaii.
This summer, a relentless flurry of extreme weather events, driven by human-caused global warming, swept across the North American continent, regularly putting a third of the US population under severe heat warnings and wreaking havoc on communities with floods, fires, and smoke. A record 15 separate disasters have cost at least $1 billion in damages so far this year.
While an enormous heatwave swept across the central part of the US this week forced schools to close in states like Wisconsin, Colorado, and Iowa and food banks to close in Nebraska, the heat has been particularly oppressive in places like Phoenix, Arizona, which had a record 31 consecutive days of temperatures above 110F (43C).
There was no relief in Miami, where a record 46 days in a row saw temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius). A raging marine heatwave caused the seawater to reach hot tub temperatures, sparking concerns that Florida’s coral reef may deteriorate to mush.
“It’s been a shocking summer,” said UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain. Even while we are aware that most of this is a result of the climate system’s long-term warming, the extremes are nonetheless shocking. Records are being shattered by a huge margin rather than merely being broken.
In addition to the global warming brought on by the combustion of fossil fuels, El Nio, a recurring climate event that heats up a portion of the Pacific Ocean and raises global temperatures, is also contributing to the record temperatures.
According to Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at the Nature Conservancy, “We have seen an unusual summer and these ‘unusual’ summers will become more and more common in the future.” According to Hayhoe, a combination of El Nio, natural unpredictability, and high temperatures has resulted in situations that have never been experienced by humans. It’s like a camel that’s carrying two more bales of hay on top of that, she remarked.
But even though harsh weather was to be expected, some of this summer’s incidents nevertheless appeared surreal. An area the size of Greece has burnt in Canada’s immense forests, and in June, smoke from these fires billowed south, suffocating New York and Washington DC in an ochre haze that brought with it the worst air quality in the entire planet. Asthmatics wheezed, visibility decreased, and many started donning masks they hadn’t used since the peak of the Covid outbreak.
The summer had started off in a bizarre manner. Arizona had such extreme heat that the state’s dedicated burns facility was completely occupied by patients who had burned themselves simply by tripping over on the hot ground. The high heat even caused the state’s saguaro cacti, an emblem of the US west, to begin to crumble.
Buildings in Juneau, Alaska, were destroyed by a flood of water brought on by melting glaciers. In the meantime, devastating floods in July caused the state capital of Vermont, Montpelier, to resemble a huge swimming pool. Vermont was once thought of as a safe, temperate sanctuary from such disasters.
Last week, Hilary, the first tropical cyclone to hit the state in decades, threatened California, which is generally plagued by drought and ever-larger wildfires. Hilary caused record rainfall in Los Angeles, down trees, and sparked mudslides around the state. Just a month after visitors, some of whom were playfully dressed in fur coats, stood in front of a huge thermometer at the national park that read 128F (53C), an almost record-breaking temperature, parts of the desert turned into rapids, and Death Valley was drenched by a year’s worth of rain in a single day.
Joe Biden has been frustrated by the disorienting, occasionally surreal character of the summer. He has been eager to promote a positive electoral narrative of booming clean energy investment, new opportunities for former workers in the fossil fuel industry, and an electric vehicle in every driveway.
The US president said, “I’ve been to too many disaster areas,” just before flying to Hawaii, where he witnessed the destruction caused by fires on the island of Maui. When flames tore through Lahaina, a historic town that was once situated on a wetland, on August 8, the disaster—the deadliest of its type in at least a century—claimed at least 115 lives.
More than 1,000 people are still missing following the blaze, which razed much of the town, with search teams combing through the rubble often only finding bones or fragments of bodies.
Biden has said of the summer, “I don’t think anybody can deny the impact of climate change any more,” recalling his own shock at the wildfire smoke plumes, the suffering of outdoor workers in the heat, and the tale of a grandmother who received third-degree burns after falling from her wheelchair onto the hot pavement. He asked, “Folks, do we really want to pretend these things are normal?”
This year, the repeated natural disasters caused by climate change have begun to rip at the foundation of American society. State and federal governments are scrambling to deal with displaced citizens, and major insurers have decided to leave parts of Florida and California due to the rising costs of insuring homes threatened by fire and flooding.
Jim Whittington, a specialist in event management at Oregon State University, said: “We just keep seeing these compound disasters – heat then fire, then fire and then flood.”
“The response community is simply at capacity; extra resources are scarce. The summer should serve as a wake-up call since our infrastructure and systems are based on presumptions from the 1950s and 1960s that are just not true today. Instead of just reacting, we need to completely rethink our strategy and begin preparing for worse to come.
According to research, the majority of Americans are now concerned about the climate crisis and strongly favor laws that boost renewable energy and speed up response to disasters. However, there is still a significant partisan divide regarding the need to address, or even acknowledge, the issue, as demonstrated by Thursday night’s televised presidential debate between Republican candidates, absent Donald Trump, in which candidates either denied the existence of the climate crisis or downplayed the necessity of making a swift transition away from fossil fuels.
Despite the fact that it is expected to be followed by a succession of years that are more hotter and more chaotic due to the continuing rise in global temperatures, Swain said that even a summer as intense as this one is unlikely to fundamentally alter this pattern.
The impact of El Nio is probably going to be even more noticeable next year as greenhouse gas emissions continue to be at historically high levels.
The fact that we appear to have grown accustomed to climate change, rather than its acceleration, is what worries Swain the most personally and professionally this summer.
The following year could very likely be even worse than this one. Even though it feels so intense right now, this summer will rank among the colder summers of this century and will seem amazingly cool in 30 years. It is truly mind-blowing when you consider it, fantastic even.