Jun 8, 2022 - Energy & Environment

America is staring down a summer of disasters

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The U.S. is in store for another summer of extreme heat, hurricanes, droughts and wildfires — threats that are all escalating because of climate change.

The big picture: Parts of the Arctic are already burning. So are parts of New Mexico. After two years of especially devastating summer disasters, experts say the potential for catastrophe is only growing.

  • Summer used to be synonymous with freedom and fun. Now, the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental research and advocacy organization, refers to it as "the danger season."

How it works: The warmer season comes with inherent natural variability. When that piles on top of larger trends related to climate change, extreme weather events can vault from "rare and uncomfortable" to "unprecedented and deadly."

Threat level: To experts, it's clear that the ingredients are there for another destructive summer.

  • Already this year, New Mexico has had its largest wildfire in the state's history — and it's still burning. And the fire season has not yet fully kicked off in northern California, the Pacific Northwest, northern Rockies or parts of the drought-afflicted Great Plains.
  • The long-term megadrought in the Southwest, due largely to human-caused climate change, only exacerbates the fire risk. Drier conditions contribute to hotter air temperatures, further drying out soils and vegetation to make the landscape more fire-prone.
  • A searing heat wave is beginning to grip the Southwest this week, including Texas, threatening to stress the power grid. And the National Weather Service's seasonal temperature outlook anticipates above-average temperatures this summer for nearly the entire continental U.S.

Outside the U.S., the outlook can be even worse.

  • Heat came early this year in India and Pakistan. Temperatures soared above 120°F, setting new records as early as March. Researchers determined that climate change made the extreme heat up to 30 times more likely to occur.
  • In the Arctic this week, wildfires are already burning in northern Siberia and Alaska. The Siberian fire season may be more severe than usual due to the diversion of military resources away from firefighting and to the war in Ukraine instead.
  • Scientists are watching Arctic tundra fires and blazes in the boreal forest especially closely, given the vast stores of carbon and other greenhouse gases stored in the frozen soils.

"All of the environmental, oceanic, and atmospheric conditions are loudly pointing to elevated risk for the rest of the year," said Steve Bowen, head of catastrophe insight for Aon.

  • But he cautions that warning signs on paper do not always translate into "worst-case event occurrences." He emphasized the need for preparedness.

What they're saying: Climate scientists are preparing for things to get worse — not just in their work, but also personally.

  • Michael Wehner, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said he has stocked up on HEPA air filters in case wildfires cause the air quality to deteriorate where he lives.
  • "Like many Californians, I am bracing for yet another fiery summer given the severe drought currently across the western U.S.," he told Axios. He is ready to relocate if air quality gets extremely hazardous. "Hopefully we will be spared, but it is prudent to be prepared."
  • "What concerns me, of course, is that many people cannot afford these expensive filters nor get out of harm’s way," he said.

What's next: Whatever swirling, broiling tempests the summer has in store, Wehner and the Berkeley Lab's Claudia Tebaldi said it's important to figure out how to mitigate and adapt to some of the impacts of these events.

  • Globally, the World Meteorological Organization, a U.N. agency, has undertaken a far-reaching, $1.5 billion initiative to bring early warning technologies to countries lacking such infrastructure.
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