Between Maui’s deadly wildfires, flash floods in Vermont, overwhelming wildfire smoke and more record-breaking heat waves, this summer has again provided more evidence of how climate change can upend daily life in the U.S.
“We’re seeing a confluence of factors come together this summer. Human-caused climate change is a key factor, and adding extra ‘fuel to the fire,’ as it were, is the transition from a sustained La Nina state of the climate to an El Nino state, which is spiking global temperatures,” Michael Mann, a professor of environmental science at the University of Pennsylvania, told Yahoo News in an email.
These are the biggest climate-change-related natural disasters from this summer.
Wildfires on Maui
The death toll from last week’s wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui has surpassed 100 and is expected to continue to climb in the days ahead. According to the National Weather Service, the fires on Maui were fueled in part by dry vegetation, which scientists say is becoming more common as warmer temperatures cause more water evaporation from plants and soil.
“Climate change doesn’t usually start the fires; but it intensifies them, increasing the area they burn and making them much more dangerous,” Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, said in a tweet.
On Maui, strong winds from Hurricane Dora made dry conditions much more dangerous.
“When those strong winds hit, if you already have the heat and the dryness and if you have a spark, a wildfire becomes more likely to grow rapidly,” Erica Fleishman, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University, told CNN.
Due to an atypical drought and above-average temperatures in Canada this spring, that country’s wildfire season started early this year, resulting in massive waves of smoke spreading across the northern portions of the U.S. this summer. Over 120 million Americans from the Midwest to the East Coast were under air quality alerts.
In the last five years, the U.S. and Canada both saw more than three times as much forest land burn on average as they did during a five-year span in the 1980s. Studies have linked that change to hotter temperatures and worsening droughts, an effect of climate change.
Longer, more expansive heat waves
Throughout the summer, tens of millions of Americans across the South and Southwest have been subject to extreme heat alerts from the National Weather Service, meaning the heat index — a measure of heat and humidity — rises above 103 degrees Fahrenheit. (On Thursday, 52 million Americans were under heat alerts.)
Cities such as Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz., and Houston and Austin, Texas, sweltered under a persistent heat dome for weeks. In Arizona’s Maricopa County, where Phoenix experienced a record-smashing 31 consecutive days of 110 degrees Fahrenheit that ended July 31, there have been 89 confirmed heat deaths with nearly 350 deaths more still under investigation.
An analysis by the research organization Climate Central, found climate change made the recent Texas heat dome’s severity at least five times more likely than it otherwise would have been.
A Gulf of Mexico hot tub
Earlier this month, a buoy in Manatee Bay just off the coast southwestern Florida registered an ocean temperature of 101.1 degrees Fahrenheit, one of three readings in Florida that surpassed the previous world record for warmest ocean temperature ever recorded.
Studies show that the ocean, which covers roughly 70% of the Earth’s surface, has absorbed more than 90% of the heat increase caused by greenhouse gas emissions.
The ocean is “the most accurate thermometer we have for the actual effect of climate change, because it’s where most of the heat ends up,” Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at Berkeley Earth, told the New York Times.
In mid-July, extreme rainfall in upstate New York and Vermont led to flash flooding that blocked roads, overflowed rivers and caused widespread damage. Parts of Vermont saw two months’ worth of rain in a few hours.
Since warmer air holds more moisture, climate change is making these so-called 1,000-year storms more frequent.
A study in the journal Climactic Change in May warned that heavy rainfall events could increase in the Northeast by an additional 52% by 2099 because of climate change.
“While it’s difficult to decisively say anything about one event, this is completely consistent with increasing precipitation in the Northeast and part of that is being driven by climate change,” said Jonathan Winter, associate professor of geography at Dartmouth College and senior author of the study, told USA Today of the July flooding.
Catastrophic flooding, in more and more places, is a clear indicator of a rapidly intensifying climate.
Long predicted by climate scientists, the hydrologic cycle is spinning up.
Just a few recent headlines...
I write about this in "The Three Ages of Water."#climatecrisis pic.twitter.com/1Q0mHZPP6t
— Real Peter Gleick💧 (@PeterGleick) July 11, 2023
Scientists say these kinds of events are becoming more common because of climate change. Between 1958 and 2016, the amount of rain falling in the heaviest rain storms increased everywhere in the U.S., but most of all in the Northeast, where it rose 71%, according to the 2018 National Climate Assessment.
“The rain is falling heavier,” Lauren Casey, a meteorologist with the research nonprofit Climate Central, told Philadelphia-area radio outlet WHYY about the Pennsylvania flood. “It’s falling faster, it’s falling harder, and it’s accumulating more quickly.”