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.”

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