Climate Change Hits Home with Another Round of Extreme Weather Events in 2013

I just returned from California and was struck by how devastating the state’s drought has become. People talked about it everywhere I went, wondering what it means for people and the economy. I can see why they are worried. Last year was the driest on record; California received only 32.8 percent of average precipitation in 2013, and the drought isn’t letting up. Flying over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, you can see stretches of dry landscape that should be covered in snow and storing the state’s water supplies.

California isn’t alone in struggling with extreme weather over the past year. NASA recently reported that 2013 was one of the top 10 hottest years worldwide. And across the United States, communities were hit with some of the worst droughts, storms, and heat waves in local history.

2013 was more than a rough year. It was a sign of things to come.

Drought and storms have always been with us, but climate change is making them more intense—the equivalent of pumping them with steroids. We already see it in our own towns and cities, where records are being broken and people’s lives turned upside down by extreme weather.

Colorado flood, 2013.

Here are just a few snapshots from the frontline of U.S. climate change in 2013:

  • Record-breaking rains drenched communities along Colorado’s Front Range in September, killing 10 people, swamping roughly 18,000 homes, and costing an estimated $2 billion in damages.
  • Iowa experienced its wettest spring on record, receiving nearly twice its average precipitation and preventing farmers from planting over 800,000 saturated acres. Then Iowa quickly shifted into one of its hottest summers ever and had one-third of the state in “severe” drought by August.
  • Several cities across the nation had their hottest July on record, including Hartford, Salt Lake City, and Reno. More than 600 daily temperature records were broken during one July hit wave, and officials warned that hot temperatures in New England were making air pollution worse and increasing risks of asthma, respiratory disease, and heat attacks.
  • By July, New Mexico was locked in the third year of one of its toughest droughts, and experts called 2013 “the worst year ever” for managing water along the Rio Grande. The state’s Elephant Butte reservoir—supplying about 50 percent of drinking water for El Paso—dropped to just 3 percent capacity in July.
  • An early October blizzard dumped more than 2 feet of snow in South Dakota, shattering Rapid City’s snowfall records and killing 20,000 cattle—20 percent of the state’s cattle.
  • Snowpack received by April 1st is a critical measure of water supply for Western states, yet by spring, areas in California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico had snowpack totaling less than 25 percent of normal.

The cost of these and other extreme events add up. At least 6 severe weather events caused $1 billion in losses each in 2013, according to the reinsurance experts at AON Benfield. Prolonged droughts, meanwhile, also led to sustained economic losses and required the USDA to pay out $2.8 billion in drought-related insurance claims.

We have an obligation to protect future generations from these burdens of economic loss, damaged communities, and increased health risk. I have three daughters, and I do not want to leave them with unchecked climate change.  This doesn’t have to be our legacy.

We can begin tackling this problem by cleaning up the pollution that causes climate change: carbon from fossil fuels. Power plants account for the single largest source of US carbon pollution, yet they have no limit on how much they can release into our air. This isn’t right, and it has to change.

The Obama Administration is expected to propose the first-ever carbon limits for power plants in June. Click here to tell the Environmental Protection Agency that you support strong standards. With these limits in place, we can begin reducing the number of record-breaking weather events that threaten our families every year.


Photo credit: Christopher Nurpu