California is burning with no end in sight. People are dying, houses are blackened hulks, forests are decimated — Why? Why is the Golden State an inferno with flames incinerating homes and trees in hills and valleys?
Several factors come into play, but all are linked to climate change. Global warming in California has resulted in shorter winters and reduced snowpack. The fire season starts earlier and ends later each year. With warmer spring and summer temperatures, drought is inevitable. Starved of moisture, vegetation and the soil are desiccated by the dry, intense heat. Undergrowth in the forests becomes abundant kindling that can ignite spontaneously, and the trees, stressed by extreme heat and lack of water, are unable to withstand the flames.
The Santa Ana winds rush from high pressure areas in the mountains to lower pressure at the coast. Channeled through mountain passes and canyons, their velocity accelerates, and the lower pressure compresses, warms and dries them out. The winds augment the parching of extreme heat and drought. Once the underbrush ignites, the wind propels and nourishes the wildfire, easily driving it across thousands of acres.
Though wildfires are a natural part of California’s bioregion, the fire season is an estimated 75 days longer now. The trends of rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall are expected to continue, and wildfires will keep pace. Each year during this decade has experienced a more destructive fire season, and there is no reason, given the paucity of effort in capping or lowering emissions, to expect deviation from this ominous trajectory.
An alarming, just published, report from Climate Central warns that flooding projected across the globe by 2050 will be far worse than previously thought. The areas affected are mostly in Asia, where millions live on or near the coast. Flooding by seawater implies not only inundation of homes, but the salting of cultivated fields. Worldwide, chronic floods will endanger 300 million people. By the end of this century, the high tide line will be permanently higher than the land where 200 million people now work, farm, and call home.
These dire predictions result from the discovery that coastal elevations are actually lower than previously estimated; hence more vulnerable to flooding, inundation and the contamination of freshwater. In fact, the incursions of saltwater could make the land uninhabitable even before it disappears under the sea.
The previous estimates of land elevation were calculated using data produced by satellite photography, which sees the tops of trees and buildings, thus overestimating the elevation of the land. The problem is particularly acute in areas of dense forest and close clusters of buildings. More accurate means of measurement, using lasers and overflights, are expensive and consequently not widely used.
Cities on the world’s coasts are the most densely populated areas on the planet, and most of them have low elevations. The older elevation estimates have been found to be too high on an average of approximately six to eight feet, which is the same as or even more than the highest sea level rise projections for all of the 21st century. The elevations of some American cities, including New York, Miami and Boston, were overestimated by an average of 15.5 feet.
As we now know, the rise in sea level occurs when the combustion of fossil fuels and other emissions caused by human activity pollute the atmosphere. The planet grows warmer, causing glaciers and ice sheets to melt and flow into the oceans. The increased volume of water raises the level of the sea.
The estimates of the number of people who will lose their farms and homes to floods of saltwater are based on moderate emissions cuts mandated by the Paris climate accords. (We are not currently meeting those goals.) If pollution and the subsequent greenhouse gases continue to increase, by the end of the century chronic flooding and permanent inundation will imperil the land that shelters and feeds 640 million people living now (actually more; based on 2010 data), close to 10 percent of the global population. Ironically, the people most likely to suffer are the ones least responsible for polluting emissions.
The United States is already experiencing the predicted effects of global warming. Hurricane Harvey caused epic flooding in Houston; diseases once confined to the tropics are increasingly occurring in the temperate zone; extreme heat is responsible for a sharp increase in deaths in Nevada and Arizona; wildfires are consuming California . . .
The loss of land and the resulting migration of climate refugees will surely give rise to humanitarian crises of unprecedented severity and have devastating effects on the world economy. Other aspects of global warming like drought and extreme heat will also have catastrophic consequences. All living creatures, from plants to insects, fish, birds and humans will have to flee their habitats and invade others. Some will survive; many won’t.
Day of the storm Boats race against the coming tempest back to a safe haven
It was the the middle of August and a big, national, summer holiday. Everyone except emergency crews and restaurant and hotel staff was on vacation. The heat and humidity were oppressive.
Then the storm came. It lasted, with varying intensity, through the night. The lightening was focused on Capri: it blazed through closed shutters, dousing the house with light. Reluctantly, because of the heat, we had to close every window and door; the shutters were ineffectual at keeping out the rain. The deafening thunderclaps pounded us from less than a mile away. I have never experienced a storm so violent. (Hurricanes are in another category.) We were warned that global warming would produce extreme weather…
Next morning, no power, no surprise. No power also meant no water. Big holiday. The electrician was away and the plumber didn’t answer his phone. The power company threw up its defenses and no one answered those calls either. Soon we found out that we were the only ones without power.
A full day passed. We carried buckets of water upstairs from the garden, where one tap was still flowing. We charged our portable devices at a neighbor’s house and left candles at the ready. Back home, it seemed quaint to carry lit candles from room to room as we readied for bed. No streaming movies, but thanks to our electronic devices, we could enjoy reading.
Fortunately, power was restored the next morning, lifting the sense of isolation and allowing us to appreciate the storm’s gift: refreshing, cool, dry air.
Twenty storms causing a billion dollars or more in damage have taken place since 2010, not including Hurricane Harvey, compared with nine billion-dollar floods in the full decade of the 1980s, according to inflation-adjusted estimates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Seven have hit just since 2016…
Warm water fuels the storms. Hurricanes and tropical storms suck up the moisture that evaporates from the warm water surface and dumps it as rainfall on the land.
Harvey, Katrina— If toxic politics don’t destroy America, global warming will. The Trump Administration has revoked the Paris accords to control climate change and is dismantling the E.P.A., which studies climate change and issues regulations that are designed to combat and slow it down.
Finally! A “monumental triumph,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Nearly 200 countries agreed to combat climate change after two weeks of tense negotiations and more than of 20 years of debate and dispute and failure to stabilize, let alone slow, global warming.
Climate change “requires the widest possible cooperation by all countries,” because it “represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet,” reads the agreement. The cap it sets on global warming is below 2˚ C., which is still not enough, according to many scientists.
“This agreement won’t save the planet, not even close,” climate activist and advocate Bill McKibben wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. It doesn’t include, for example, a specific timeline for phasing out fossil fuels.
But it is a giant step forward nonetheless. It is “the best chance to save the one planet we’ve got,” President Obama said in his remarks to the nation on Saturday.