Extreme Weather: Impacts of Climate Change
When it comes to connecting the dots between climate change, extreme weather and health, the lines are clear.
The earth is saying something with record heat, drought, storms and fire. Scientists are telling us this is what global warming looks like.
It's time to listen – and take action. There's plenty we can do.
Carbon pollution is the main reason our planet is getting hotter, increasing the chances of weather disasters, drought and flood and hurting our health.
There are solutions. For starters, we can cut carbon pollution by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and increasing our use of clean, renewable energy. And we can implement policies that help us prepare for flooding, drought, storms and other consequences of climate change.
But first, we need national leadership that will stop ignoring what the earth and scientists are telling us about climate change -- and instead start ignoring those who continue to deny it is happening.
Here's what the first six months of 2012 brought:
- The hottest January to June ever recorded in the continental United States.
- More than 22,000 daily high temperature records tied or broken.
- The largest drought declaration in over 50 years, with more than two-thirds of the continental United States in drought at the end of July.
- One of the most destructive freak derecho storms in history.
- Fires in Colorado that have destroyed more than 700 homes.
Unfortunately, the first half of 2012 is not the exception. It's becoming the new normal. In 2011, for instance, an unprecedented 14 disastrous weather events resulted in an estimated $53 billion in damage –- not including health costs. But the trend goes back much further. In fact, the 13 warmest years ever recorded have occurred since 1997, according to the United Nations World Meteorological Organization. June 2012 also marks the 328th consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average.
The extreme weather of 2012 has already caused billions of dollars worth of damage, but again, that's just part of the trend. Learn more from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA’s) billion-dollar weather/climate disaster page.
There's little doubt that climate change is contributing to the extreme weather disasters we've been experiencing. Numerous studies, such as this one conducted in connection with NOAA's 2011 State of the Climate report, shows the clear links between extreme weather and human-induced climate change.
There are solutions to address extreme weather tied to climate change. For starters, we need our lawmakers to quit ignoring climate change and start limiting carbon pollution that is heating our planet and increasing the intensity of extreme weather.
Extreme heat in the first half of 2012 killed at least 74 Americans.
But the climate change-related heat mortality in the first half of 2012 is just part of a deadly trend. In 2011, at least 206 people died from extreme heat, up from 138 fatalities in 2010 and nearly double the 10-year average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
If we don't do more to reduce fossil fuel emissions and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases that are making heat waves more intense, more than 150,000 additional Americans could die by the end of this century due to excessive heat.
Heat-related death is just one deadly side effect of extreme weather tied to climate change. Extreme storms can cause drowning, contaminate drinking water and result in outbreaks of infectious diseases. Heat and ozone smog increases respiratory diseases such as asthma and worsens the health of people suffering from cardiac or pulmonary disease.
There are solutions to address the health effects of climate change. For starters, we need our lawmakers to quit ignoring climate change and start limiting carbon pollution that is heating our planet and increasing the intensity of extreme weather.
Tropical Storm Debby brought record rainfall and extreme flooding to Florida in the first half of 2012, killing at least seven people, destroying more than 100 homes and causing tens of millions of dollars in damage to beaches, businesses and homes.
But 2012's flooding is just part of the trend. Some of the most disastrous flooding in the United States has occurred in recent years. In 2011, rainfall in the Ohio Valley was nearly 300 percent of normal, flooding the Mississippi River and causing $3 billion in damage and 7 deaths.
Hurricane Irene, meanwhile caused 45 deaths and nearly $10 billion in damage, much of it from flooding.
In the Midwest storms that dump more than three inches of rain in a day have more than doubled in the last 50 years.
Between more intense rainstorms and sea level rise, flooding will only increase if we don't address climate change. Some cities and states are taking steps to address climate change-related water issues, but many more have yet to begin.
There are solutions to address flooding and sea level rise. For starters, we need our lawmakers to quit ignoring climate change and start limiting carbon pollution that is heating our planet and increasing the intensity of extreme weather.
The first half of 2012's historic drought saw more than 80 percent of the country in abnormally dry or drought conditions in mid-July. Drought of course threatens our water and food supplies and is driving up the cost of everything from corn to milk. Unfortunately, drought conditions are expected to become the new normal for many parts of the country if we don’t do more to address climate change.
More than 1,100 U.S. counties -- one-third of all counties in the lower 48 states –- will face higher risks of water shortages by mid-century as the result of global warming. Some states are taking steps to address long-term drought. New York, for instance, is developing comprehensive drought monitoring programs and emergency water supplies, while Oregon is implementing ways to increase water storage capacity for times of drought.
There are solutions to addressing the effects of drought. For one thing, we can stop wasting so much water, and energy that's required to pump it around. We also need our lawmakers to quit ignoring climate change and start limiting carbon pollution that is heating our planet and increasing the intensity of extreme weather.
Even if you don't live in an area prone to wildfires, your health may be threatened by smoke from fires raging in other parts of the country. NRDC analysis shows that about two-thirds of the United States -- nearly 212 million people -- lived in counties affected by smoke conditions in 2011. And climate change will make matters worse: hotter temperatures and longer dry seasons in summer create conditions that can lead to more frequent wildfires.
Exposure to wildfire smoke can cause serious health problems, such as asthma attacks and pneumonia, and can worsen chronic heart and lung diseases. People with respiratory problems like asthma or with heart disease are particularly vulnerable, as are people living in areas with high levels of particulate pollution from roadways and industrial sources. The very youngest are also at risk: lower birth weights are found among babies born to mothers exposed to wildfire smoke during pregnancy. Even otherwise-healthy people may experience minor symptoms, such as sore throats and itchy eyes.
Because smoke can harm respiratory health for millions more people in addition to the thousands affected directly by wildfires, action is needed to prepare communities to react quickly when wildfires do occur. Communities must protect themselves and vulnerable residents from escalating risks by planning for the health impacts of wildfire smoke in the face of a changing climate.
last revised 1/15/2014
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