Extreme weather and climate change

We, in the Mid-Ohio Valley, have experienced a relatively moderate summer — no extended heat waves or severe storms. Such is not the case in other parts of our country and in other parts of the world. Even before our summer officially started, a serious heat wave gripped the country in the month of May; that month, as a result, was the fourth hottest May on record. And as the summer emerged in the northern hemisphere, four continents (Europe, Asia, northern Africa, and North America) experienced their hottest summer on record. In one oil city in Algeria temperatures reached 1240F Fahrenheit; in Pakistan it reached 1220F and in normally cool Oslo, Norway 860F for 16 consecutive days. Scientists predict that heat waves will be more common than in the past due to human-induced climate change. Northern climates, where carbon emissions are the most common, are heating faster than the global average.

What, then are the short-term and long-term consequences of these extreme weather events throughout the world? The open-access medical and scientific publication called PLOS in its Medicine Project, concluded that there has been an increase in mortality due to these unusual heat waves. In Algeria oil workers were not able to work more than two hours per day in the extreme heat. In North America rails are buckling under extreme heat, leading railroad companies to paint them white to reflect more of the heat. Forest fires have become more severe and extensive in the American West. Some farmers in Europe are strongly considering slaughtering their herds rather than continuing to struggle with feeding them in the face of decreasing water and grain and hay harvests. In the long term crops grown in moderate climates will not grow under extended heat waves; fish will be harvested in fewer numbers in warming oceans; and animals raised in overheated environments will be lighter and less numerous. The threats to wildlife in natural habitats of the northern hemisphere are even more disturbing; in fact, the Marietta Times recently carried an article reporting that the climate change is the likely reason for the decline in number of bird species by 43% in the Nevada and California area.

In the past scientists have struggled to identify a causal link between human-induced climate change and extreme weather. Now there has been a break-through in scientific methodology to more clearly make this connection. In analyzing data from Australian heat waves in 2013, downpours in Louisiana in 2016, and flash floods in France, scientists have compared two sets of climate models — those that take into account existing conditions, in which rising carbon dioxide has warmed the planet and those that assume CO2 emissions had never happened and the climate is as it was more than a century ago. This approach to studying extreme weather events is called climate-change attribution.

In applying this “attribution” method to data from the 2017 Hurricane Harvey in southeast Texas, scientists have been able to attribute the extreme rainfall of this event to climate change. During Hurricane Harvey 50 inches of rain occurred in some areas. World Weather Attribution concluded that climate change accounted for an increase of the rainfall associated with Harvey by a factor of three. In the devastation wreaked by this hurricane, 80 people died and thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed by flooding.

We can anticipate more human suffering and death as well as increased property damage if we do not take action to mitigate the effects of climate change and reduce carbon emissions. These steps include rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, continuing to support the closing of coal-fired power plants (while transitioning workers and communities from coal to 21st century energy production), reducing methane emissions from the process of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), reinforcing sustainable agriculture, and making the commitment to renewable energy. We can demonstrate our personal engagement to reducing carbon emissions by opting for hybrid and electric vehicles, solar panels for generating home electricity, and practicing the three Rs — reduce, reuse, and recycle.

George Banziger lives in Marietta.

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