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How Climate Change Is Fueling Extreme Weather

The spike in global temperatures is contributing to climate disasters that will only get worse unless we take action.

Emily Scott walks through the ruins of her house burned in the July 2018 Carr Fire in Shasta, CA. Climate change is making wildfires more ferocious.

Emily Scott walks through the ruins of her house burned in the July 2018 Carr Fire in Shasta, CA. Climate change is making wildfires more ferocious.

John Locher / AP

Across the globe, extreme weather is becoming the new normal.

Torrential rains and flooding. Record hurricanes. Destructive wildfires. Deadly heatwaves and drought. From season to season and year to year, weather events that were once rare occurrences are now increasingly commonplace.

In late October 2019, California became ground zero for meteorological turmoil. With record dry, hot conditions across the state, seasonal high winds (known as Diablo in Northern California and Santa Ana in the southern part of the state) caused destructive wildfires to grow and spread at an unprecedented rate.

Human activity is causing rapid changes, such as the hot and dry conditions in California. When fossil fuels are burned for electricity, heat, and transportation, carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that traps solar radiation, is released into our atmosphere. Over the past century, massive increases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have caused the temperature on our planet to rise. In California, temperatures are estimated to have increased 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century.

That spike in global temperatures is fueling climate disasters that will only get worse unless we take action. Experts say we have just over a decade to avoid climate catastrophe. Read on to learn more — and find out what we’re doing to help the planet change course.

Wildfires burn longer and wider

The Carr Fire burns along Highway 299 in Redding, CA, on July 26, 2018.
The Carr Fire burns along Highway 299 in Redding, CA, on July 26, 2018.
Noah Berger / AP

Wildfires have always been a natural part of life in the western United States. However, as this region grows hotter and drier, wildfires are growing in size, ferocity, and speed. Fifteen of the 20 largest fires in California history have occurred since 2000 — and it’s no coincidence that the state’s hottest and driest years were in the same timeframe. The Camp Fire in 2018 — California’s most destructive, and deadliest, wildfire in history — destroyed an average of one football field worth of land every three seconds and killed 68 people, according to Cal Fire. Despite the fact that fires in California in 2017 and 2018 were the worst in recent memory, the 2019 fire season is shaping up to be even worse. In late October 2019, wildfires raged up and down the state – the largest one, the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, forced more than 180,000 people to flee their homes.

Extreme heat gets hotter

As global temperatures rise, the hottest temperatures — and the number of areas impacted by extreme heat — are also rising. That means more scorching hot days in more places. Take the Texas cities of Austin and Houston, for example. Over the past 50 years, Austin has seen the number of days with temperatures above 100°F increase by one month, while Houston has recorded an additional month with temperatures above 95°F. Through 2100, scientists predict hotter temperatures and more frequent — and intense — heat waves in every region of the U.S., as explained by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Drought conditions persist

A warning buoy sits on the dry, cracked bed of Lake Mendocino near Ukiah, CA, in 2014.
A warning buoy sits on the dry, cracked bed of Lake Mendocino near Ukiah, CA, in 2014.
Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Higher temperatures also lead to drier conditions. When global temperatures rise, moisture evaporates from both our planet’s waterbodies and soil. Droughts in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world have become more severe — and lasted longer — thanks to climate change. In fact, the American West is currently in the midst of a “mega drought” that ranks among the worst in the past 1,200 years, according to a recent study by scientists at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

Warmer temperatures drive increases in precipitation

This Tuesday, May 28, 2019, aerial photo shows flooded homes along the Arkansas River in Sand Spring, OK.
This Tuesday, May 28, 2019, aerial photo shows flooded homes along the Arkansas River in Sand Spring, OK. Downpours upstream raised the river to historic levels.
David Goldman / AP

Warmer air increases evaporation, which means that our atmosphere contains an increasing amount of water vapor for storms to sweep up and turn into rain or snow. Just as drier areas are likely to get drier with rising global temperatures, those areas of the world that have historically trended toward heavy precipitation will only get wetter. In the contiguous United States, rainfall in 2018 broke records, with an average of 36.2 inches falling over a 12-month period — more than 6 inches above average.

Sea level rise causes flooding

As the planet warms, ocean waters are also warming — and expanding. At the same time, warmer temperatures are causing land ice — think glaciers and ice caps — to melt, which is adding water to the world’s oceans. As a result, average global sea level has increased eight inches in the last 150 years. Right now, the Atlantic coast of the United States and the Gulf of Mexico are experiencing some of the highest sea level rise in the world, which, combined with record rainfall, has led to catastrophic flooding.

Hurricanes are becoming more intense

Augustin Dieudomme looks out at the flooded entrance to his Fayetteville, NC, apartment complex after Hurricane Florence.
Augustin Dieudomme looks out at the flooded entrance to his Fayetteville, NC, apartment complex after Hurricane Florence.
David Goldman / AP

Hurricanes draw their energy from warm ocean water, which means that hurricanes are just getting stronger. In the future, we can expect to see more hurricanes along the lines of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the islands of Dominica, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico in 2017. Officials estimated that 3,000 people died in the aftermath of this catastrophic storm that dropped nearly a quarter of the Puerto Rico’s annual rainfall in one day and unleashed maximum sustained winds of 175 mph.

What can we do?

Americans across the political spectrum are feeling the urgency of our climate deadline and calling for action on a scale that matches the threat. People want a healthy environment and a thriving economy.

Unfortunately, fossil fuel companies are doing everything in their power to hold us back. They’re intent on burning every last ounce of oil, coal, and gas — even if it means the planet burns, too. And the Trump administration is doing everything in its power to help them.

Earthjustice is leading the fight against the administration’s environmental rollbacks in the courts — and we’re winning. Over the past year, the court has ruled in our favor more than 80 percent of the time. These victories rein in lawless giveaways to industry and level the playing field for clean energy to outcompete fossil fuels.

This fight to preserve a livable planet touches everyone. Working together, we can do more to break free from fossil fuels and build a healthy, sustainable world for future generations. Together, we can lead systemic change in service of the earth and justice for its people.

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