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“Historic” weather: Why a cocktail of natural disasters is hitting the United States | Climate crisis in the American West

SSummer in the American West has gotten off to an explosive start, with extreme weather events ravaging several states in recent weeks. In Montana, historic flooding has devastated communities and infrastructure in and around Yellowstone National Park and forced a rare closure. Further south, reservoirs hit new lows, triple-digit heat waves suffocated millions, and wildfires ripped through Arizona, New Mexico, Alaska and California.

These layered catastrophes offer a glimpse of what is to come. As temperatures continue to climb, extreme events won’t just increase – they’re more likely to overlap, causing more calamity and testing the limits of the nation’s resilience and recovery.

“The United States has some capacity to deal with extreme events,” said Dr. Andrew Hoell, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (Noaa) Physical Sciences Laboratory, adding that capacity is under strain. when these events reinforce each other. regional or sequential.

Natural disasters, from floods to droughts to wildfires, have always occurred in parts of the west, and it will take time for scientists to study the precise links between events such as the destruction of Yellowstone and the climate crisis. But it is clear that, in a warming world, combinations of factors are increasingly likely to align and turn routine events into disasters. So-called “compound extremes,” where a combination of contributing factors come together, are on the rise, Hoell said.

A superposition of dangerous realities

The Yellowstone flood was one of these “compound extremes”.

Global warming led to melting snow in waterways as a deluge battered the region, dropping up to three months of summer rain in just days, according to a tally by CNN . Researchers from the US Geological Survey (USGS) and two universities had previously sounded the alarm that an event like this was increasingly likely, releasing a report last year on how the climate crisis could threaten the park. Noting that average temperatures could rise by up to 10 degrees over the next few decades, they concluded that the region should expect intense dry conditions dotted with dangerous downpours.

“As global surface temperatures increase, the possibility of more droughts and increased storm intensity is likely to occur,” the USGS scientists wrote. “As more water vapor evaporates into the atmosphere, it becomes fuel for more powerful storms to develop.”

The moment a house collapses into a river as major flooding shuts down Yellowstone National Park – video

The unprecedented and sudden flood earlier this week toppled telephone poles, toppled fences, wiped out roads and bridges and threatened to cut off the supply of drinking water to the state’s largest city, after officials in Billings, Montana were forced to shut down its treatment plant.

“None of us anticipated a 500-year flood on the Yellowstone when we designed these facilities,” said Debi Meling, director of public works for the city. Remarkably, no one was injured or killed, but the damage may have been permanent and recovery could take years.

“We certainly know that climate change is causing more natural disasters, more fires, bigger fires and more floods and bigger floods,” said Robert Manning, retired professor of environment and natural resources at the University of Vermont. “These things are going to happen, and they’re probably going to happen a lot more intensely.”

composite of images showing the destruction left by the fires in New Mexico

Roll the heatwave and fire dice

Now in the third year of extremely dry conditions, about 44% of the American West has been classified as extreme drought, according to the American Drought Monitor. Once the lush hills have turned brown, the waterways have retreated into the fissured earth and the agricultural, ecological and industrial impacts are expected to increase, and swaths of the west will go without hope of precipitation through the summer and winter. fall.

This also loaded the dice for wildfires, as fires behave more erratically and become more difficult to fight. Southwestern states have been hammered by dozens of fires this spring, including a ferocious blaze in New Mexico that became the worst in state history.

The number of square miles burned so far this year is more than double the national 10-year average, and wildfires have already set records and destroyed hundreds of homes.

A water shortage emergency in Southern California has resulted in water restrictions for six million people amid drought conditions. Photography: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Destructive fires, a devastating drought and torrential floods are each disasters in their own right – but when they overlap, they are even more capable of causing calamity. Scientists say these events are happening more frequently and the climate crisis is a major culprit.

“These are three events that are all extremely consistent with our well-understood baseline expectations for climate change,” said Dr. Karen McKinnon, a climatologist and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. She explains how when the atmosphere warms, it retains more moisture. This worsens drought conditions and sets the stage for stronger storms.

“The most fundamental influence of us putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is warming temperatures,” she said. “We can say with enough confidence going forward that these types of events will simply be more likely because temperatures keep rising.”

While extreme heat makes other weather events more dangerous, it is also a deadly threat in itself. Heat waves have already taken their toll this year. Millions of people across the United States have faced sweltering spring temperatures that don’t drop overnight, increasing the risk of health damage. An LA Times investigation published last year found that heat-related deaths are woefully underreported in California and related deaths could be up to six times higher than the official tally.

“What we’re seeing is we’re just going to have more and more of these record-breaking heat waves because we’re shifting the temperatures towards warmer conditions,” McKinnon said. Scientists say heat waves are also increasing in size, affecting entire regions with greater frequency. About a third of Americans – more than 100 million people – have faced dangerous temperatures as a heatwave blanketed large swathes of the country last week.

‘The greatest crisis facing our nation’, but can the resources keep up?

Accumulating disasters have strained resources. From a severe shortage of firefighters ahead of peak times to struggling to get water usage under control, agencies are struggling to prepare for the worst effects. Patrick Roberts, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation who studies disasters, says many systems have improved to deal with simultaneous events, but there is still work to be done.

Flooding seen in Livingston, Montana.
Flooding seen in Livingston, Montana. Photography: William Campbell/Getty Images

“Covid has given us the experience of a national emergency,” he said, noting that although the pandemic has been disastrous, it has helped streamline national systems that never had to simultaneously respond to an event not confined to a geographic region.

Failure to prepare comes at a high cost, both financially and in the devastation caused to communities.

According to a 2019 study published by the National Institute of Building Sciences, every dollar spent on risk mitigation saves the United States $6 in future disaster costs. Last year, the United States spent an alarming $145 billion on natural disasters – the third highest amount on record – and faced 20 extreme events that cost more than $1 billion. dollars each, nearly triple the average since 1980.

The fire is still burning in the hills above Sheep Fire scorched areas in California.
The fire is still burning in the hills above Sheep Fire scorched areas in California. Photography: Etienne Laurent/EPA

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) is already preparing for an escalation in needs this year and beyond, requesting $19.7 billion for its 2023 disaster relief fund.

“The field of emergency management is at a pivotal time in its history,” Fema Administrator Deanne Criswell said during a House Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing on preparedness, emergency response and recovery. The agency is handling more than triple the number of disasters this year than a decade ago.

“Climate change is the greatest crisis facing our nation and is making natural disasters more frequent and more destructive,” Criswell said. “Although our mission itself has not changed, our operating environment has changed.”