As catastrophes unfold, have our leaders got the message yet?
It's never been clearer that the climate crisis is here now. Below are news stories from just the past month describing extreme weather events and catastrophes from around the world. UPDATED 28 July
Some events are so extreme they could have not have occurred without climate breakdown, in other regions there is a trend of increasing frequency/severity. These events, alongside much worse predictions by scientists, should be enough to push world leaders into action on climate. But at best we see only half-measures and delay. Less than 100 days remain until the COP26 summit, and the UK government is issuing new oil drilling licences while ignoring the gap between its emissions targets and a lack of policies to meet them. We have to speak out and ensure the voices of those on the front lines of climate change are heard.
Heatwaves, drought and fire
Madagascar is on the brink of a famine it played little part in creating. In Southern Madagascar, a four-year drought and vicious sandstorms have destroyed crops and turned arable land to desert. As many as 500,000 are nearing starvation.
‘Nowhere is safe’: heat shatters vision of Pacific north-west as climate refuge. A 'heat dome' brought unprecedented heat to the US Pacific north-west and western Canada. Known for mild summers, cities were unprepared for record temperatures of up to 42.2C (Seattle) and 46.7C (Portland, Oregon). Some inland areas managed to get up to 118F (47.8C). Hospitals suddenly found themselves overwhelmed, with several hundred people believed to have died in the heat. The town of Lytton shattered the previous heat record for Canada (45C), reaching 49.5C before residents fled a devastating wildfire, which destroyed large parts of the town. Temperature records are usually broken by fractions of degrees.
This is only part of a long-term trend - a 22 year megadrought as reduced snowfall mean reservoirs are not being replenished, causing an existential crisis for farmers and populations in the American West. In the western US, currently 85% is in 'severe drought', with two-thirds (65%) in 'extreme' or 'exceptional' drought.
Heat and drought combined led to the West erupting in fierce wildfires. In Oregon, the Bootleg Fire has burned over 410,000 acres (over 1650 km2, more than the area of Greater London), and was powerful enough to generate dangerous columns of lightning-charged smoke and ash, reaching the stratosphere. The smoke from fires causes serious health problems, and has reached as far as the east coast, with New York issuing air quality warnings. In California, 2020 was the worst fire season on record, burning double the previous area. But 2021 is currently ahead of the trend for 2020, with 900 more fires compared to this time last year.
‘Everything is on fire’: Siberia hit by unprecedented burning Extraordinary forest fires, which have already burned through 1.5m hectares (3.7m acres) of land in north-east Siberia have released choking smog across Russia’s Yakutia region, where officials have described this summer’s weather as the driest in the past 150 years. Fires have sparked one of the world's worst ever air pollution events.
Abnormal heat across Russia, combined with low rainfall, is expected to damage this year's harvest if conditions do not change.
Norway, Sweden and Finland have also been experiencing a heatwave. Lapland recorded its hottest temperature for more than a century.
Wet-bulb temperatures (WBT) combine heat and humidity into a single measure, representing the human body's ability to regulate to a safe temperature. At 35C WBT, even fit, acclimatised people who sit in the shade die within about 6 hours. With 2C global heating. it is predicted almost all of India would see 33-35C WBT at least every 8 years. The city of Jacobabad in Pakistan reached 52C, which with high humidity represented a WBT of 35C
As temperatures in Baghdad and southern provinces of Iraq rose up to 52C, power cuts left many without electricity for days, a reminder that climate impacts oftern come on top of existing conflict, inequality and infrastructure failure.
Death toll rises and thousands flee homes as floods hit China Days of torrential rain and massive flooding hit China’s southeastern Henan province, bursting the banks of rivers, overwhelming dams and the public transport system and forcing thousands of people to evacuate their homes. At least 25 people have been killed and seven are missing in the provincial capital, Zhengzhou as the subway system flooded. The rain was extraordinarily intense: the average annual rainfall in Zhengzhou is around 64cm. In 24 hours over 55cm fell, with over 20cm In just one hour.
Just two weeks previously, heavy rain in Sichuan province affected more than 120,000 people, with the city of Dazhou evacuating more than 4,600 hit by rising water and landslides and damage of an estimated US$27 million. Floods in Jiangxi also caused 60,000 to be evacuated.
More than 190 people have died in flooding caused by heavy rainfall. The district of Ahrweiler in Rhineland-Palatinate, south of Cologne, was the worst-hit area, with at least 117 people killed, and homes and roads torn up. At least 31 died in Belgium (further floods 10 days later in the town of Dinant caused damage but no deaths). In Austria, severe flooding also occurred but without fatalities. London was also affected by flooding.
Mountainous north-eastern Turkey, bordering the Black Sea, is already flood-prone, with most flat land available for building in river valleys. Climate change is making rain heavier. Floods and landslides killed six in Rize, with further severe flooding a week later.
In Maharashtra in India, torrential monsoon rains caused landslides and flooding. The state has recorded its heaviest spell of July rain for decades.A record 1.5m rainfall over 72 hours was reported in the hill town of Mahabaleshwar, causing a deadly landslide downstream in the coastal region. The total death toll is now at least 192.
Earlier in the month, dozens died in Mumbai in a landslide caused by monsoon rains. There were also fatalities from landslides in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, while a million people were affected by flooding and 7,400 evacuated in Bihar. Heavy rain and landslides also affected Nepal and Pakistan. In recent years, the monsoon has shifted towards long dry spells broken up by burst of extreme rainfall, which are more likely to flood drains and overwhelm infrastructure
In Bangladesh, floods and landslides destroyed shelters and killed eight people in Rohingya refugee camps, highlighting again how the poorest and most vulnerable are located on the frontline of climate impacts.
Japan, South Korea, South East Asia
A landslide killed at least two people in the resort city of Atami in Japan. Landslides are common in Japan, but have increased in frequency by 50% in the past decade, attributed to the rise in heavy rainfall due to climate change.
Two people were killed in floods and landslides in South Korea, Over 80,000 people evacuated their homes in the Philippines after flooding caused by a combination of the monsoon and Typhoon Fabian, while over 2000 homes were damaged by floods and landslides in Indonesia.
New Zealand's west coast was hit by severe flooding after heavy rain, as was the Marlborough region. Climate scientists explained that the flooding was due to a phenomenon called an 'atmospheric river', exacerbated by climate change.
Heavy flooding affected tens of thousands in Costa Rica and Panama, also in northern Colombia in Magdalena and Antioquia Departments. In the US, there were floods in Alabama, Arizona, South Texas, and New York, where rain from Storm Elsa flooded the New York subway.
Cause and effect
The link between climate change and heatwaves is obvious, but there is also a clear mechanism linking global warming to extreme rainfall events: warmer air can hold more moisture.
It used to be seemingly obligatory to end reports on extreme weather disasters with a disclaimer "No single event can be said to be caused by climate change." We're past that now. For example, researchers estimate climate destabilisation made the North American heatwave 150 times more likely.
The more extreme it is, the more likely it is that a disaster would simply not have occurred without the planetary experiment of altering our atmosphere. For other events, they are within a 'normal' range, and could have happened without climate change. But with climate change loading the dice, extreme weather events become more frequent and severe. A recent study found that more than a third of all extreme heat deaths worldwide can be attributed to climate change.