Our climate is changing . . . how are we handling it?
This summer of fire and swelter looks a lot like the future that scientists have been warning about in the era of climate change, and it is revealing in real time how unprepared much of the world remains for life on a hotter planet.
The disruptions to everyday life have been far-reaching and devastating. In California, firefighters are racing to control what has become the largest fire in state history. Harvests of staple grains like wheat and corn are expected to dip this year, in some cases sharply, in countries as different as Sweden and El Salvador. In Europe, nuclear power plants have had to shut down because the river water that cools the reactors was too warm. Heat waves on four continents have brought electricity grids crashing.
And dozens of heat-related deaths in Japan this summer offered a foretaste of what researchers warn could be big increases in mortality from extreme heat. A study last month in the journal PLOS Medicine projected a fivefold rise for the United States by 2080. The outlook for less wealthy countries is worse; for the Philippines, researchers forecast 12 times more deaths.
Globally, this is shaping up to be the fourth-hottest year on record. The only years hotter were the three previous ones. That string of records is part of an accelerating climb in temperatures since the start of the industrial age that scientists say is clear evidence of climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.
And even if there are variations in weather patterns in the coming years, with some cooler years mixed in, the trend line is clear: 17 of the 18 warmest years since modern record-keeping began have occurred since 2001.
“It’s not a wake-up call anymore,” Cynthia Rosenzweig, who runs the climate impacts group at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said of global warming and its human toll. “It’s now absolutely happening to millions of people around the world.”
Be careful before you call it the new normal, though.
Temperatures are still rising, and, so far, efforts to tame the heat have failed. Heat waves are bound to get more intense and more frequent as emissions rise, scientists have concluded. On the horizon is a future of cascading system failures threatening basic necessities like food supply and electricity.
For many scientists, this is the year they started living climate change rather than just studying it.
“What we’re seeing today is making me, frankly, calibrate not only what my children will be living but what I will be living, what I am currently living,” said Kim Cobb, a professor of earth and atmospheric science at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. “We haven’t caught up to it. I haven’t caught up to it, personally.”
Last week, she installed sensors to measure sea level rise on the Georgia coast to help government officials manage disaster response.
Katherine Mach, a Stanford University climate scientist, said something had shifted for her, too.
“Decades ago when the science on the climate issue was first accumulating, the impacts could be seen as an issue for others, future generations or perhaps communities already struggling,” she said, adding that science had become increasingly able to link specific weather events to climate change.
Globally, the hottest year on record was 2016. That was not totally unexpected because that year there was an El Nino, the Pacific climate cycle that typically amplifies heat.
More surprising, 2017, which was not an El Nino year, was almost as hot. It was the third-warmest year on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or the second-warmest, according to NASA.
The first half of 2018, also not marked by El Nino, was the fourth-warmest on record, NOAA found.
In the lower 48 United States, the period between May and July ranked as the hottest ever, according to NOAA, with an average temperature of 70.9 degrees, which was almost 5 percent above average. Sea levels continued their upward trajectory last year, too, rising about 3 inches higher than levels in 1993.
What does all that add up to? For Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California Los Angeles, it vindicates the scientific community’s mathematical models. It does not exactly bring comfort, though.
“We are living in a world that is not just warmer than it used to be. We haven’t reached a new normal,” Swain cautioned. “This isn’t a plateau.”