SNAPSHOT: A Year of Climate Extremes

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2018 was another year of hell and high water as the extreme weather impacts predicted by decades of climate science and advocacy continued to accelerate. The rolling series of storms, floods, wildfires, severe heat, and drought produced a constant stream of headlines from around the world, making the human and ecological devastation of extreme weather one of the toughest but most important aspects of the climate change story.

The year opened with daunting but hardly surprising reports that an unstable global climate did record damage in 2017, with all the evidence pointing to the need for faster action on greenhouse gas reductions. Insurers warned of a $1.7-trillion gap in severe weather coverage over the next 10 years, while the U.S. National Institute of Building Sciences said investments in climate resilience pay off sixfold. In the run-up to a landmark report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in September, stressing the urgency of a 1.5°C target for average global warming, a small avalanche of studies and reports showed that the 2.0°C “guardrail” previously suggested by climate science would be insufficient to hold off severe impacts around the world.

While much of the news coverage of extreme weather focused on impacts in developed countries, governments and climate justice advocates continually reminded the rest of the world that the poorest countries and regions are almost invariably the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. As the 2018 United Nations climate conference in Katowice approached, the Climate Vulnerable Forum held a “carbon-free” virtual forum that demanded 1.5°C action for the world’s most vulnerable nations.

Severe Storms and Floods

At one time or another in 2018 just about every part of the world saw the extreme impacts of severe storms and flooding. While not every storm (or wildfire, heat wave, or drought) could be linked directly to the climate crisis, it’s settled science that climate change “loads the dice” for extreme weather events, making them more frequent and severe. The year also saw improvements in the science that allows attribution of specific events, pointing toward an emerging opportunity for litigation and liability focused on climate polluters.

The local impacts of severe storms and floods were chilling, and often heart-rending. A flash flood in Jordan in late October killed 18 people, most of them children and teachers on a school trip. A mudslide in Montecito, California, left 17 dead, 40 missing, and the immediate area looking like a First World War battlefield. An intense hurricane literally wiped a small Hawaiian island off the map, and Typhoon Mangkhut killed 64 in the Philippines before continuing on to southern China and Hong Kong, just a couple of weeks after another typhoon sent an empty fuel tanker careening into a bridge in Japan. Floods and landslides killed 200 people in Japan, even as the country missed an opportunity for a shift to renewable energy, and Fiji entered a frightening new era of extreme weather. Late autumn storms killed six people across northern Italy and flooded 70% of historic Venice.

In Canada, British Columbia endured heavy flooding in mid-May as it prepared for the approaching wildfire season. New Brunswick warned of possible municipal sewage contamination as floodwaters hit record levels, and a review of historical records showed the country’s weather getting wilder. One of a half-dozen tornadoes that suddenly hit Ottawa September 21 turned a beloved, wooded neighbourhood into a logging camp, and the Ottawa Renewable Energy Co-op pointed to the need and opportunity to build a more resilient, distributed local electricity system.

A Harvard University study concluded that 4,645 people died as a result of Hurricane María in 2017—73 times the official estimate from the U.S. government under Donald Trump—and hurricanes cost the Caribbean $3 billion in tourist revenue in 2017.

Boston confronted two “100-year storms” within weeks. Hurricane Florence bore down on North Carolina, a state that had previously tried to legislate sea level rise out of existence, eventually turning North and South Carolina into an archipelago until drenching floodwaters dissipated. The experience prompted North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper to set a 2025 deadline to reduce his state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40%.

Less than a month later, a super-heated ocean boosted Hurricane Michael into a 250-kilometre-per-hour monster that churned through an impoverished part of the Florida Panhandle. Gaps in emergency response had some survivors worried that “they’re doing us like they did New Orleans.”

Fire and Heat

At mid-year, wildfires and heat emergencies were sweeping North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Eurasia, with the constant stream of news showing signs of finally burning climate denial to the ground.

Veteran climate hawk and meteorologist Eric Holthaus pointed to the firestorms sweeping much of the western United States as evidence that a new era of “fire tsunamis” has begun. “You can imagine standing in front of a tsunami or tornado and trying to stop it from destroying homes,” incident commander Ben Brack told the Denver Post. “A human response is ineffective.”

“The official term for the hellish meteorological event that hit La Veta [Colorado] is a ‘firestorm,’ a self-propelling explosion of flame generated by strong and gusty winds from a particularly intense fire over extremely dry terrain,” Holthaus explained. “When a fire gets hot enough, it can generate its own weather conditions and wind speeds can approach hurricane force, drying out the surrounding land.” U.S. firefighters got their first taste of a “fire tornado,” and a similar incident grabbed a responder’s hose and pulled it 100 feet in the air before letting go. “Sorry for the profanity,” wrote Vanderhoof, B.C., firefighter M.C. Schidlowsky at the end of an incident video on her Instagram feed.

A climate impact assessment pointed to wildfires as one part of the “apocalyptic threat” California faces if climate change is not brought under control, after an earlier assessment found that the state’s private utilities lost $20 billion in value after a prior round of blazes. Within months, both assessments were out of date, as the Camp Fire near Sacramento became the worst conflagration in California history, killing at least 85 people and destroying 14,000 homes.

British Columbia declared a(nother) state of emergency in late August in response to an epic wildfire season, as smoke from the province’s more than 600 fires worsened air quality in many parts of Canada. Analysts and activists connected dots between a year of severe climate impacts and energy policies destined to make the problem worse—including Ottawa’s decision to buy a leaky, 65-year-old pipeline from Houston-based Kinder Morgan.

An after-action review found that the emergency response to the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016 largely neglected nearby Indigenous communities, even as it relied on some of them to shelter evacuees. Studies found that drought and heat make it tougher for forests to regenerate after a fire, that intense, repeat wildfires pollute rivers and threaten water supplies, and that homes destroyed in fires produce a disturbing spike in airborne toxic compounds. Fire, drought, and insect infestations were putting large swaths of the Canadian boreal forest at risk, and a new round of boreal mapping pointed toward future increases in all three.

Extreme Temperatures and Drought

Drought, extreme heat, and, sometimes, extreme cold showed that climate change is about a far wider range of localized effects than just “global warming.” The Washington Post captured a snapshot of the story at mid-summer: from scorching high temperatures in the Middle East and Southern California, to 51.3°C heat in Ouargla, Algeria, that set a record for all of Africa. North America set or tied temperature records in Montreal; Ottawa; Los Angeles; Denver; Mount Washington, New Hampshire; and Burlington, Vermont. A northeastern “heat dome” brought stifling temperatures above 100°F to Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, DC. While “no single record, in isolation, can be attributed to global warming,” the Post wrote, “collectively, these heat records are consistent with the kind of extremes we expect to see increase in a warming world.”

In Siberia, while actual weather observations are scarce, modelling put the temperature above 32°C July 5, more than 22°C above normal. “It is absolutely incredible and really one of the most intense heat events I’ve ever seen for so far north,” wrote meteorologist and blogger Nick Humphrey.

Record highs were recorded in Glasgow, Belfast, and Shannon in Ireland; Castlederg in Northern Ireland; Tbilisi, Georgia, and Yerevan, Armenia, in Eurasia; several locations in southern Russia; and in the Middle East in Quriyat, Oman. And experience in Iran showed that it didn’t take record high heat to trigger public protests, a violent response, and at least one strange burst of paranoia from a senior public official.

European cities were on track for more severe climate impacts. Studies linked a winter deep freeze across much of North America to climate change and found a strong correlation between Arctic warming and wacky winter weather, while a massive storm pushed temperatures at the North Pole 30°C higher than normal. The world’s oceans marked the warmest recorded temperatures in 2017.

Farmworkers in the United States were dying of heat-related illness, and 70 people in southern Quebec, most of them impoverished, died in a summer heat wave. An Omani fishing village endured a record 24-hour period in which the low temperature was 42.6°C, and a heat wave in Karachi, Pakistan, killed at least 65 people. A study found that 3.0°C average global warming would lead to a fivefold increase in heat waves in Africa. A sweltering summer left 72% of Britons concerned about climate change; Alaskans faced severe impacts due to surging Arctic temperatures; Colorado ski operators stood to lose billions of dollars due to warmer, drier winters; and an early snow drought was expected to cut reservoir levels, resulting in billions in costs across the western United States.

Cape Town, South Africa, was on track to run out of water on April 22, until the imminent threat of Day Zero prompted residents to cut their per capita consumption by half.

Human Impacts and the Way Forward

Droughts and floods drove global hunger to a 10-year high, wiping out previous gains and prompting United Nations agencies to call for greater emphasis on climate resilience. A migrant caravan from Central America heading toward the United States was driven primarily by climate-induced drought, and millions around the world were being displaced each year by climate impacts, while the Trump administration scaled back its quota for incoming refugees. The poorest and most marginalized bore the brunt as air pollution killed eight million people per year, and many young adults faced a wrenching ethical dilemma as they weighed whether to become parents.

Analysis showed that the economic costs of climate change will hit hardest in India and the United States, placed the annual cost of unchecked sea level rise at $27 trillion by 2100, and stressed that compensation for loss and damage—the unavoidable costs that vulnerable countries and regions face due to climate disasters—must push beyond market-based measures like insurance.

Puerto Rico was in the midst of a major mental health crisis a year after Hurricane María, and Fort McMurray faced higher rates of depression, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress after its 2016 wildfire. British Columbia unveiled a mental health plan for 2017 wildfire evacuees just as its 2018 wildfire season kicked off, and the overwhelming devastation from Hurricane Florence hit poor and rural North Carolinians the hardest. Australian farmers demanded practical solutions to the climatic changes they could see unfolding before their eyes, local solar installations pointed toward a better way to rebuild Puerto Rico, and a study found that a suite of urban solutions could free billions of people from climate impacts by 2050.

Media largely missed the memo on the urgency of the IPCC report on 1.5°C pathways, a new Canadian climate atlas showed that the crisis is real, and Texas fossils—without a trace of irony—sought federal government funding to protect their vulnerable, greenhouse gas-producing operations from climate change.

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