Skip to main content
Take Action
Feb. 17, 2021

How Climate Change Is Fueling Extreme Weather

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

Residents of Austin, Tex., wait to enter a grocery store on Feb. 16, 2021, to stock up on supplies ahead of another expected storm.
Tamir Kalifa / The New York Times via Redux
Residents of Austin, Tex., wait to enter a grocery store on Feb. 16, 2021, to stock up on supplies ahead of another expected storm.
Residents of Austin, Tex., wait to enter a grocery store on Feb. 16, 2021, to stock up on supplies ahead of another expected storm.

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

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

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. 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, late winter storms have covered the Mid-Atlantic region in ice and snow. Record-breaking snowstorms have knocked out power for nearly 3 million homes in Texas, as icy conditions and heating demands overwhelmed much of the region’s power supply. Temperatures have dropped as far as 20°F to 35°F below normal in the Great Lakes and Great Plains Area.

Close Section

 

2. 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 the early hours of Aug. 27. 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.

Close Section

 

3. 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.

Close Section

 

4. 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.

Temperatures in California’s Death Valley recently reached upward of 130°F on the region’s hottest days recorded in over a century. In Northern California, drought and wildfires combined with erratic winds to create the destructive weather phenomena known as a fire tornadoes.

California wildfires have burned more than 3 million acres already this year — an area the size of 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.

Close Section

 

5. Extreme heat gets hotter

Dangerous dilemmas and health risks during the pandemic
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.

Heatwaves in California during the COVID-19 pandemic have created a dangerous dilemma.

With residents staying home to avoid virus exposure, increased demand for air conditioning is fueling more carbon pollution and putting a strain our energy system. Hundreds of thousands of residents are facing rotating power outages, while others are stuck inside without a cooling system. Meanwhile, wildfire smoke has forced many to keep their windows closed.

These conditions exacerbate health risks for vulnerable people who are already bearing the brunt of COVID-19. And these risks will only grow as hotter temperatures push the limits of our energy system, and climate change and habitat destruction drain the planet of its ability to contain diseases.

Close Section

 

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

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, according to a recent study by scientists at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

Close Section

 

7. 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.

Close Section

 

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. 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.

We can solve our climate crisis by moving urgently to zero carbon emissions and 100% clean energy.

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

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. 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.

Encourage your senators to swiftly confirm the Biden-Harris administration's cabinet nominees so that their agencies can get to work directing the federal government's climate action. The climate crisis isn't stopping.