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June 1, 2021

How Climate Change Is Fueling Extreme Weather

Carbon pollution is contributing to climate disasters that will only get worse unless we take action.

Boat docks at Browns Ravine Cove sit on dry earth at Folsom Lake on May 10, 2021, in El Dorado Hills, Calif.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
Boat docks at Browns Ravine Cove sit on dry earth at Folsom Lake on May 10, 2021, in El Dorado Hills, Calif. A drought emergency has been declared in 41 of California's 58 counties. Folsom Lake is at 38% of normal capacity.
Boat docks at Browns Ravine Cove sit on dry earth at Folsom Lake on May 10, 2021, in El Dorado Hills, Calif. A drought emergency has been declared in 41 of California's 58 counties. Folsom Lake is at 38% of normal capacity.

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

  • Destructive wildfires
  • Deadly heatwaves and drought
  • Record hurricanes
  • Torrential rains and flooding
  • Intense winter storms

From season to season and year to year, weather events that were once rare occurrences are now increasingly commonplace.

Why is this happening?

Human activity is causing rapid changes to our global climate that are contributing to extreme weather conditions.

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, methane, and other greenhouse gas emissions have caused the temperature on our planet to rise. That spike in global temperatures is fueling climate disasters that will only get worse unless we take action. Experts say we have a decade to avoid climate catastrophe.

Read on to learn more, find out what Earthjustice is doing to help the planet change course, and how you can help.

1. Wildfires burn longer and wider

Larger fires in hot, dry years
Flames from a backfire consume a hillside as firefighters battle the Maria Fire in Santa Paula, Calif., on Nov. 1, 2019.
Noah Berger / AP Photo
Flames consume a hillside as firefighters battle the Maria Fire in Santa Paula, Calif., on Nov. 1, 2019.

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.

In recent years, California has become 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.

California wildfires burned more than 4 million acres in 2020 — an area larger than Connecticut — making 2020 the biggest fire season in state history. The five largest fires on record in California have occurred in the last three years. 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.

And it’s not just California. Oregon, Washington, and Colorado have also seen explosive fires that have forced thousands to evacuate, claimed lives, and destroyed homes and businesses. Experts are warning that widespread drought across the West will fuel another dangerous fire season in 2021.

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2. Extreme heat gets hotter

Heat waves pose health risks and strain our energy system
Woodland Hills, Calif., registers 117F on Aug. 19, 2020, as a fierce heat wave entered its second week.
Al Seib / Los Angeles Times
Woodland Hills, Calif., registers 117°F on Aug. 19, 2020, as the fierce heat wave entered its second week.

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. In California, temperatures are estimated to have increased 3°F in the past century.

Through 2100, scientists predict hotter temperatures and more frequent and intense heat waves in every region of the U.S., according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Extreme heat increases demand for air conditioning, fueling carbon pollution and putting a strain our energy system that can lead to blackouts. It also poses a serious health threat, especially for the most vulnerable.

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3. Drought conditions persist

Moisture evaporates from waterbodies and soil
A dried out lake stands near the Navajo Nation town of Thoreau on Jun. 6, 2019, in Thoreau, N.M.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images
A dried out lake stands near the Navajo Nation town of Thoreau on Jun. 6, 2019, in Thoreau, N.M.

Higher temperatures also lead to drier conditions. When global temperatures rise, moisture evaporates from waterbodies and soil.

Droughts in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world have become more severe and long-lasting 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. Much of the region is currently facing "extreme" or "exceptional" drought conditions.

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4. Warmer temperatures drive increases in precipitation

Areas that have historically trended toward heavy precipitation will get wetter
A Philadelphia police officer rushes to help a stranded motorist during Tropical Storm Isaias, Aug. 4, 2020.
Matt Slocum / AP Photo
A Philadelphia police officer rushes to help a stranded motorist during Tropical Storm Isaias, Aug. 4, 2020.

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.

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5. Hurricanes are becoming more intense

Storm systems draw their energy from warm ocean water
A mother and her 3-week-old baby are ferried from their home amidst the floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images
A mother and her 3-week-old baby are ferried from their home amidst the floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Hurricanes are growing more powerful as global temperatures rise because these storm systems draw their energy from warm ocean water.

One of the most powerful storms to ever hit the United States struck the Gulf Coast in August 2020. Hurricane Laura rapidly gained strength over the nearly 90°F waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The Category 4 storm caused catastrophic damage to structures and suspected chemical fires among the region's petrochemical plants.

In the future, we can expect to see more hurricanes along the lines of Hurricane Laura and 2017’s Hurricane Maria, which devastated the islands of Dominica, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. Officials estimated that 3,000 people died in the aftermath of the 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.

Hurricane Katrina ripped into the Gulf Coast in August 2005, devastating entire cities and hitting Black communities like those in low-lying New Orleans parishes especially hard. The storm claimed more than 1,800 lives, displaced hundreds of thousands of residents, and left behind $161 billion in property damage.

Fifteen years after this costly disaster, our nation remains just as susceptible, if not more so, to the threat of increasingly violent hurricanes. The 2020 hurricane season shattered records, and experts warn that we’re in for another “above average” hurricane season in 2021.

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6. Sea level rise causes flooding

Oceans are warming; land ice is melting
Houston residents escape flooded homes and businesses, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images
Houston residents escape flooded homes and businesses, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

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.

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7. Winter storms hit harder

Trapped water vapor leads to heavier snowfall
A woman tries to protect her face from blowing snow while walking in white-out conditions in Jersey City, N.J., Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. The winter storm dropped more than two feet of snow on the area and may have broken a 122-year-old  snowfall record for the state.
Seth Wenig / AP
A woman protects her face while walking in white-out conditions in Jersey City, N.J., Feb. 1, 2021. The winter storm dropped more than two feet of snow on the area and may have broken a 122-year-old snowfall record for the state.

Even as climate change raises average global temperatures, that doesn’t spell the end of winters. Overall, winters are getting milder and shorter; but recent winters have brought intense snowstorms and record-breaking frost.

While it may seem contradictory, climate change may be contributing to more extreme winter weather. As the warming atmosphere traps water vapor later and later into the year, that precipitation leads to heavier snowfall when the temperatures do drop.

Another factor is the rapidly warming Arctic, which some scientists believe is weakening the jet stream and causing disruptions of the polar vortex. The polar vortex refers to bands of wind and low air pressure near the North Pole, which normally lock cold air over Arctic. When those bands break down, icy air can escape south in the form of freezing winters.

In 2021, record-breaking snowstorms knocked out power for nearly 4.5 million homes in Texas as icy conditions and heating demands overwhelmed much of the region’s power supply. More than a hundred people died, and the storms caused an estimated $295 billion in damage.

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What can we do?

There is a solution: Break free from fossil fuels
Peter Koleckar reacts after seeing multiple homes burned in his neighborhood after the CZU Lightning Complex Fire passed through on Aug. 20, 2020, in Bonny Doon, Calif.
Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP Photo
Peter Koleckar reacts after seeing multiple homes burned in his neighborhood after the CZU Lightning Complex Fire passed through on Aug. 20, 2020, in Bonny Doon, Calif.

Americans across the political spectrum are feeling the urgency of our climate deadline and calling for action on a scale that matches the threat. We need bold and equitable climate solutions to move towards a pollution-free, 100% clean energy future.

Our attorneys use the law and partner with climate leaders and communities on the frontlines to:

This fight to preserve a livable planet touches everyone. Together, we can drive transformative change in service of the earth and justice for its people.

When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, many of the island's residents were without power for nearly a year. Puerto Rico now has the opportunity to build a climate-resilient, more affordable energy system. Tell FEMA that you support investments in resilient and climate-friendly renewable energy.