Hurricane Laura and the California Fires Are Part of the Same Crisis

By David R Baker, Eric Roston and Brian Eckhouse | August 27, 2020

As Hurricane Laura pounded the U.S. Gulf Coast with nearly 150 mile-per-hour winds, causing water levels to rise almost 10 feet above normal in the wee hours of the morning, wildfires in California were still raging across more than a million acres, the result ofa heatwave that spikedas high as 130° Fahrenheit (54.4° Celsius)—possibly the hottest temperature ever sustained on Earth. In the middle of the country, an inland hurricane flattened a large part of Iowa and darkened Chicago homes.And a tropical storm left thousands in New York without electricity for a week or more.

That was just some of the extreme weather the U.S. suffered this month.

Scientists hesitate to blame any particular storm solely on climate change. But the extreme weather conditions now testing the country, one disaster overlapping with the next, are exactly what they’ve long warned us to expect in a warming world. “As all of these things become more likely, it’s more likely we’re going to have these coincidences where we have all kinds of weather events that are extreme occurring at once,” said Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University.

At times like this, he said, “it feels like the climate has it in for us.”

Extreme weather events will only get more frequent as warming continues—not heading toward a new, stable level of activity, but rather tipping further into chaos, said Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist who recently retired from the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “There is no new normal,” he said. “Or if there is, it is temporary before further changes come along.”

The field of climate attribution is still relatively young, having started up in earnest only in 2004, the year after a European heatwave killed 70,000 people. But the science has progressed rapidly. Heatwaves in particular are less and less interesting for researchers. Friederike Otto, a University of Oxford climate researcher and organizer of the World Weather Attribution initiative, said she doesn’t think they’ll bother investigating the recent California heat from a climate change perspective. “The evidence is so strong already,” she said.

Hurricane Laura, meanwhile, is just the latest product of an Atlantic hurricane season that has generated storms at a record clip. Never before have seven hurricanes or tropical storms struck the U.S. by the end of August, according to Phil Klotzbach, lead author of the Colorado State University seasonal hurricane forecast, one of the gold standards of storm modeling. The Atlantic has had active storm years before, but hurricanes draw their strength from warm water, and researchers have long warned that increased global temperatures will lead to more powerful storms.

Both broad and intense, Hurricane Laura made landfall as one of the strongest storms ever to hit the state of Louisiana. So far there’s been just one confirmed U.S. death, a 14-year-old girl who died when a tree fell on her home, said Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards; at least 13 people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic were killed by the storm as it gained strength over the weekend. While the winds have subsided from their peak intensity, utilities report that more than half a million residential and commercial customers are without power. “Power outages are going to become more extensive,” Edwards told CNN.

Even when extreme weather doesn’t level structures or consume acres of human development, it still shows us how ill-prepared we are for a more volatile climate. In California, high heat pushed up electricity demand in the evenings, just when the output from the state’s solar plants dropped off. Utilities have plans to use batteries to provide round-the-clock solar coverage, but many haven’t been installed yet. Power plants burning natural gas had to pick up the slack. But many have closed in recent years, in response to state regulations and weak profits.

Climate is changing faster than emergency managers can keep up with it—and often in unexpected ways.In New York, for example, the remains of Hurricane Isaias battered the city and its suburbs with wind and knocked out power to 2 million homes. Electric utilities there had spent more than $3.5 billion hardening the grid after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, but they focused on protecting equipment from water, not wind.

“We’re going to continue to face weather events,” said Ethan Zindler, head of Americas research at BloombergNEF, which specializes in the clean-energy transition. “The question is whether we build a better grid and better distributed resources to deal with it.” The latest events simply highlight the existing need for greater localization of energy resources, complemented by battery backups, he said.

Flavio Lehner, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said systems for managing rainfall and snowmelt will also have to change. Those geared to the precipitation patterns of the 20th century are increasingly struggling—sometimes with too little water during worsening droughts, sometimes with too much water from intense storms.

“We’re seeing a lot of climate impacts that we anticipated, or were actually forecasted, play out the way we thought they would,” he said. “They increased—sometimes in frequency, like in heat waves, and sometimes in frequency and intensity, like extreme precipitation events.”

With the first-generation projections of climate change now realized by real-world events, Lehner and his colleagues are trying to peer deeper into our hotter future. “I personally, even working on just a daily basis, sometimes struggle to wrap my head around, ‘This is what we’re seeing now,'” he said. “What would happen if we see another degree of warming? Currently, we’re pretty well on track to do that.

“If you’re disturbed by what we’ve seen in the last decade, in a world that’s about a degree warmer,” he added, “this will only get more intense.”

–With assistance from Brian K Sullivan and Mark Chediak.

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