Lethal Weather: The Rise of Natural Disasters Due to Climate Change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned a few years ago that “It is very likely that heat extremes, heat waves and heavy precipitation events will continue to become more frequent.” The term “very likely” in this kind of scientific report usually means with about 90 percent probability. As for the consequences to human beings, there are many, and none of them good.

For example, more extreme temperatures translates not only into more wildfires but also fires that burn longer and consequently burn over larger areas and do more damage. And heat waves, already well known for increasing the mortality of the very young and the elderly, will become more lethal as they become more frequent and more severe. For yet another example, heavy precipitation can cause disastrous flooding.

In Texas, wildfires that have been burning for months have consumed more than three million acres, while in Arizona one wildfire grew to be the largest in that state’s history This trend of large-scale devastation by wildfires is certain to continue in the future. A NASA-generated model predicts that climate change will lead to an increase of fires in the US West of between 30 and 60 percent by the end of the century. And a report released last year by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that a 1-degree Celsius increase of global temperature could more than triple the amount of land burned by wildfires in the West.

The effects of heavy precipitation are harder to predict precisely. Earlier this year record flooding occurred when the Mississippi River couldn’t contain the deluge from spring storms along with the melting snow pack.. Often the media report severe flooding as an anomalous, albeit tragic, event, and ignore any connection to climate change.

A similar criticism applies to heat waves. That they occur more frequently is a statistical fact that is unlikely to be explored by the local media. But, perhaps driven by climate change, heat waves may be taking on more deadly characteristics. For example, in the first two weeks of June, a deadly heat wave broke temperature records in a number of states, increasing mortality rates.

The connection of climate change to some increasingly severe weather, and to some increasingly deadly weather –related phenomena — is clear. But tornadoes are also becoming more deadly, and they have no clear connection to climate change.

A rundown of tornado activity was done by Neil deMause writing in a recent issue of Extra! According to deMause, in mid-April a huge storm spread from the Rocky Mountains into the Midwest and South, generating more than 150 tornadoes. The result, 43 people killed across 16 states, was one of the biggest weather catastrophes in US history. But it was quickly followed by an even largr storm, the so-called 2011 Super Outbreak that resulted in more than 300 tornadoes across 14 states from April 25 to 28. This included the one-day record of 188 tornadoes on April 27 that killed 339 people, including 41 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Later, on May 22, a super strong (F5) tornado hit Joplin, Missouri, flattening a large part of the city and killing 153 people. By mid-June more than a thousand tornadoes had killed 536 people, nearly as many deaths from tornadoes as in the entire preceding decade.

Unlike much of the other extreme weather phenomena, tornadoes have not been clearly connected to climate change. Nevertheless, Kevin Trenberth, a climatologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, has suggested a possible relationship. He notes that there is more warm, moist air from The Gulf of Mexico flowing into all spring storms that travel across the US. “This destabilizes the air, provides fuel for thunderstorms and converts some thunderstorms into supercell storms, which in turn provide the environment for tornadoes to form.”

If the relationship of climate change to tornadoes is far from clear, its connection to other severe weather and to weather-connected events, such as wildfires, is understood. Climate change, and the weather-related calamities it produces, is likely to continue.

Not that it couldn’t be slowed, or even stopped. Environmentalist Bill McKibben, observing the disasters caused by climate change, wrote sarcastically, ”It’s very important to stay calm. If you get upset about any of this, you might forget how important it is not to disrupt the record profits of our fossil fuel companies.”

But it is time to get upset and to act. Climate change is here, right now, with all of its nasty consequences for human beings – people who need no additional threats to their well-being.

Writer Al Huebner regularly contributes to TowardFreedom.com