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.
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 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 this past 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.
Carr fire: A California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection mechanic died in a vehicle crash in Tehama County early Thursday, the eighth death connected to the furious blaze that has scorched roughly 177,000 acres in Northern California.
Holy fire: Forrest Clark, charged with starting the Holy fire in Southern California that has burned 12 cabins and forced at least 20,000 people from their homes, refused to go to court Thursday, delaying his initial court appearance. His arraignment was rescheduled for Friday. He is charged with three counts of arson, resisting arrest and deterring an executive officer. He is being held on $1 million bail and faces life in prison if convicted.
Flooding in France: Hundreds of rescuers backed by helicopters evacuated about 1,600 people, most of them campers, in three regions of southern France where heavy rain caused flash flooding and transformed rivers and streams into torrents. Hardest hit was the Gard region, where 119 children, many of them from Germany, were evacuated from their campsite at Saint-Julien-de-Peyrolas.
The Associated Press
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.
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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 warming and its toll.
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.
This week, she is installing sensors to measure sea-level rise on the Georgia coast to help government officials manage disaster response.
Globally, the hottest year on record was 2016. That was not unexpected because there was an El Niño, the Pacific climate cycle that typically amplifies heat.
More surprising, 2017, which was not an El Niño year, was almost as hot. It was the third-warmest year on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), or the second-warmest, according to NASA.
The first half of 2018, also not marked by El Niño, 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 Fahrenheit, which was almost 5 percent above average. Sea levels continued their upward trajectory last year, too, rising about 3 inches, or 7.7 centimeters, 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. “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.”
Against that background, industrial emissions of carbon dioxide grew to record levels in 2017, after holding steady the previous three years. Carbon in the atmosphere was found to be at the highest levels in 800,000 years.
Still, scientists point out that with significant reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions and changes to the way we live — things like reducing food waste, for example — warming can be slowed enough to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
Some governments are taking action. Officials are promising to plant more trees in Melbourne, Australia, and covering roofs with reflective white paint in Ahmedabad, India. Agronomists are trying to develop seeds that have a better shot at surviving heat and drought. Switzerland hopes to prevent railway tracks from buckling by painting the rails white.
Climate scientists are also trying to respond faster, better. Rosenzweig’s team at NASA is trying to predict how long a heat wave might last to help city leaders prepare. Similar efforts to forecast the distribution of extreme rainfall are aimed at farmers.
Researchers with World Weather Attribution are working to refine their models to make them more accurate. “In Europe the warming is faster than in the models,” said Friederike Otto, an associate professor at Oxford University.
Her group recently concluded that a human-altered climate had more than doubled the likelihood of the record-high temperatures in northern Europe this summer.